The best care-givers

I woke up to a WhatsApp text this morning. It was from a Somali refugee. She wanted to know if my family was okay. She knows the Covid-19 virus is loose in America. She said she is praying for us.

I also spoke with a Turkana pastor in Kakuma this morning. He too wanted me to know that he was concerned and praying for us.

Those who have suffered are often the best care givers. They know uncertainty and loss.

How beautiful to start my day with their kind words of encouragement.

Soap in the desert

Above: a life-saving soap distribution center

Refugee camps have been identified as among the most vulnerable places to a Covid-19 outbreak.

I reached out to our refugee partner agency (URHC) in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) to see if we can do anything to help deter such an outbreak. We identified that one of the most urgent and needed things in the camp was soap.

Most of us living in countries of influence and power take soap for granted. It plays an often taken for granted role in our lives – keeping us healthy.

But our forcibly displaced friends live in harsh circumstances without access to stuff as simple and essential as soap.

As we talked together, we realized that the 162 refugee churches with whom we partner could all be transformed into local soap distribution centers! All they need is a 50 liter tank, a tap, liquid soap and water.

We did the math. It would take just under $40 to set up one church with everything – including 1 month’s supply of soap. Thereafter it would cost $7 per church to resupply them with another month’s worth of soap. It sounded doable.

After working out the plan and budget, I spoke with a friend and mentioned my excitement to have found a way to help the churches in Kakuma serve and protect their communities. That friend got excited too – and within a couple of days made a donation to cover the setup and 4 months’ worth of soap for all 162 churches!

It took my breath away. God is clearly determined to provide this protection for the vulnerable people in Kakuma!

So IAFR wired the first round of funds earlier this week. The refugee churches are preparing to set up their soap distribution systems.

I’m hoping and praying that the soap begins to flow before the weekend in Kakuma!

Tough questions

What does refugee ministry look like in midst of the Covid-19 pandemic? What does it look like to help refugees stuck in distant camps? Or the asylum seekers in the US we are assisting with shelter? Or the asylum seekers in Athens who recently lost the support of international humanitarian agencies? Or the asylum seekers (minors) living in group shelters in northern France? Or the resettled refugees trying to rebuild their lives in US cities but who are facing the possibility of losing their entry level jobs to quarantine?

These are questions that our IAFR team is wrestling with in this time of uncertainty.

I’m proud of how our team is leaning into this, determined to find creative ways to support our forcibly displaced friends. I’ll be writing more about that soon.

In the meantime, I hope that you are healthy and safe. May God provide our daily bread.


Click here to see the email I sent out to our IAFR email list earlier today.

Disruption

Lockdown. It’s not been a word I’ve heard or used much over the years. Now it is a daily news staple as the world brought to a near standstill by the microscopic corona virus, Covid-19.

As I spent many hours in the Amsterdam airport and later in the petri dish of O’Hare a week ago today, I’ve put myself in voluntary-isolation for two weeks. Given the state is likely to put us all in lockdown in the near future, I don’t expect much will change for me next Sunday.

The number of US states in lockdown is increasing, slowly for now. But they include Illinois, where IAFR Vice President, Tim Barnes, lives. My home state of Minnesota is not yet in full lockdown, but I’m betting that it will be within a week or two. For now, we are free to roam, although restaurants, bars, stadiums, churches, etc. are all closed.

I moved my office into my home last week. I’ve cancelled trips to Seattle and Bangkok that we’re planned for this month. I’m fairly certain other travel for the first 1/2 of the year will also fail to materialize.

We’ve got missionaries in lockdown in Athens, France and Vienna. Our Director of Training had to cancel plans to bring training to Jakarta this month. Plans of a couple IAFR teammates to visit Dzaleka refugee camp (Malawi) in May are also up in the air.

Thanks to the Internet, I’m in regular contact with IAFR teammates and with our refugee partners in Kakuma. I appreciate how everyone is making the best of the situation and seeking ways to encourage and support the most vulnerable people in their orbit.

But like you, I’m concerned about those who are sick and unable to get tested or treated. I’m concerned about those without medical insurance and those with high deductibles. I’m concerned about the welfare of those at the front end of this crisis – from healthcare providers to UPS drivers. I’m concerned for those who’ve suddenly found themselves out of work – people in the hospitality business and those in the entertainment industry. I’m concerned for those who’s retirement savings have gone up in smoke as the stock market is in a tailspin. I’m concerned about refugees and asylum seekers who are often stuck in crowded camps, living in dependence on the global community for water, food, and even soap – at a time when the world seems happy to shut them out and ignore their suffering.

I’m concerned that the worst is yet to come.

To Kakuma

I start the journey back to our friends in Kakuma refugee camp today. I’ll finally get there on Wednesday after meeting with our NGO partner offices in Nairobi on Tuesday.

I’ll post updates from Kenya to the IAFR Kakuma blog. I’ll be traveling with Dr. George Kalantzis, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and Senior Fellow of Theological Development with IAFR. Dr. Margaret Diddams, Provost of Wheaton College, and her husband Stan will also serve with us kn this visit. We plan to continue offering theological training for refugee pastors as well as consult with them concerning curriculum development for their School of Mission. There is much more to this trip – so be sure to check out the blog!

Traveling at this early juncture of the covid-19 virus pandemic has a lot of unknowns. I welcome your prayers for a fruitful trip and an uneventful return to Minnesota that does not include getting quarantined anywhere along the way.

Maximum flexibility

My March travel plans include Kenya (assessed as the 6th highest risk city in Africa for a Covid-19 outbreak), Seattle (where Covid-19 claimed its first US casualty) and Bangkok, the highest risk city outside of China for an outbreak.

My plans to go to Kenya (Kakuma refugee camp) are still on. I’m still planning on Seattle too. Bangkok is likely going to be cancelled – Delta has already cancelled flights from Minneapolis to Seoul (through which I would need to fly to get to Bangkok).

Those who know me know one of my creeds is, “maximum flexibility!” It’s taking on a whole new meeting in March.

Travel season

It’s been rather refreshing to have been in the US since mid-November. But the highway is calling again. I’m on the edge of travel season again.

I’ll visit Kenya, Thailand, Seattle, France and Austria in March, April and May. I look forward to making a long overdue visit to my son in NYC somewhere in the middle of the other trips.

I’m thankful for the privilege of seeking the welfare of forcibly displaced people internationally – and for the remarkable support of my wife, Donna, that makes it possible.

IAFR Regional Leader Call

Today was my monthly video conference meeting with IAFR Regional Leaders supporting our ministries in Africa, Europe and the USA – plus our Director of Training (photo).

It was encouraging to hear our Europe Regional Leader (Paul Sydnor) report on the annual Europe Round Table of the Refugee Highway Partnership, with which he serves as part of the core leadership team.

I asked why people go to the Round Table and he quickly said: “It’s for encouragement and networking with like minded Christians serving refugees. There is nothing else like these Round Tables that brought together over 250 people serving refugees in 26 different countries in Europe this year.

IAFR missionaries have played a key role in launching the Refugee Highway Partnership and in helping it gain momentum over the years. We feel this is an important part of our mission – to strengthen such networks. For we know our vision and mission is bigger than we can ever hope to accomplish on our own.

Our US Regional Leader (Sarah Miller) then debriefed her recent research trip along the US southern border. We are prayerfully discerning how God might use IAFR to help people there survive and recover from forced displacement.

Buffalo Bicycles

Above: A Buffalo Bicycle. Photo: World Relief.

It’s not easy to get around a refugee camp that covers 12 square miles with a population of over 160,000 – many of whom have been stuck there for decades. That’s the situation in Kakuma refugee camp, in remote northwestern Kenya.

So it is understandable that our friends there would ask if we could help them get bicycles for 15 of the key leaders of an association of 162 churches in the camp and surrounding host community. The request came by WhatsApp this morning.

We’ve worked together for a decade and I know the need is legit. I wrote up a project proposal for our board’s consideration at our meeting later this month.

15 bicycles @ $180/bike = $2,700

The bikes they want are called “Buffalo bicycles”, presumably because they’re tough. I’ve seen them in the camp where the roads are rough and unkempt. It’s pretty much an off-road bicycleland.

Each bike will be used to connect, encourage, equip and assist churches throughout the camp and in the host community (in which living conditions aren’t much better than in the camp).

I’m hoping and praying that we can come up with the funding quickly.

Asia calling

In the past couple of weeks, we have received serious invitations to help refugee related ministries in Asia – including a group of pastors in Myanmar, a network of churches in Jakarta, and a mission serving refugees in Bangkok.

We sense God is somehow in this and are praying that he will show us our part in what he is doing in the region.

I’m praying that God leads us to people and financial partners that will make it possible to extend our work into this region.

Stay tuned.