I am often asked this question. Here is my best shot at a brief answer…
Our Mission Field
Our mission field is the Refugee Highway – the well-worn routes people travel in search of safety. This is where we find our fellow human beings, made in the image of God, spilling out of the deepest and darkest wounds in the world today.
We are helping people survive and recover from forced displacement together with the church.
What We Do
We demonstrate the love of God for those who have been forcibly displaced by hatred and violence. We pray for the privilege of participating with God in his answers to their prayers.
We introduce forcibly displaced people to Jesus – He is the ultimate revelation of God and his love for us.
We partner with the refugee church, breaking her isolation and investing in her capacity in ways that strengthen hope and fuel resilience in refugee contexts.
We train and consult with churches, missions, agencies and individuals serving forcibly displaced people.
We advocate on behalf of forcibly displaced people, seeking to create space in the hearts and minds of people (especially Christians) for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people
The IAFR Continuum of Response (below) shows the ministry strategy we contextualize to suite the diverse locations we serve. There is a lot packed into it. Let me know if you would like to know more.
Why We Refuse to Lose Heart
I have often been asked why I haven’t burned out after nearly 40 years of working among people in crisis. Of course, the biggest reason is God’s grace. The needs we face are relentless and the burden is often heavy. But there are three realities that help keep hope alive and my heart and mind resilient.
God has been at work in and through the lives of forcibly displaced people ever since Adam and Eve were uprooted from the Garden. God met them on the other side. God is meeting refugees in remarkable ways today too.
Refugees are more than people in need. They are an important part of the solution to the challenges they endure. They are a huge source of inspiration in my life.
The church can be found all along the Refugee Highway. When at her best, she plays a unique and essential role in helping people survive and recover from forced displacement – a role that humanitarian agencies are not able to fill. The kinds of ministries listed on the green line called “Recovery Work” in the Continuum of Response (above) are well-suited to the ministry of a healthy church.
Good news flashed on WhatsApp this morning. It was a series of photos (including this one) showing refugee churches with metal sheet roofing in Kalobeyei refugee settlement.
The settlement hosts about 40,000 refugees. Many of them are Christians. Although the settlement opened in June 2016, the churches are just now receiving plots within the camp on which they can build. Most of our brothers and sisters have been literally meeting under trees for the past 2+ years. And the trees in the semi desert often offer next to no protection or relief from the relentless sun.
We thought the $5000 we sent to our refugee partners there would provide enough metal sheeting to roof up to 5 churches. What a joy to see how they stretched the funds to help 7 churches!
Over 30 churches are still in need of help. Let’s pray with them for God’s provision!
Click here if you would like to contribute to this project
Photo: Refugee camp on the Aegean Sea (Behind the fencing and cement pillars topped with barbed wire)
We stood talking through the bars of the gate behind which security guards stood in their bullet proof vests. They refused to let us in, even though we were with friends who presently call the refugee camp behind the bars and barbed wire walls their home. It was an oppressive sight.
Our friends are young believers in Jesus. The denial to allow us to enter the camp to visit them in their container-converted-into-a-shelter was another dehumanizing moment. The father said how hard it is to feel human in such conditions. The weight of his words was almost visible.
The mother told us how much their Persian fellowship in Athens means to her and her family. They gather with other refugees in a home outside of the camp – in a home where they are welcomed, valued and treated as human. It is a fellowship of travelers from distant nations who have found Jesus to be a faithful friend in every circumstance.
We had joined their gathering the night before. The living room was full of refugees – brothers and sisters from Iran and Afghanistan. They shared how much Jesus means to them. Some spoke of the difficulties of their journey – and then said how it has all been worth it because they met Jesus on the way.
Photo: Refugee camp entrance – down the path and through the barred entrance
It was 10 years ago at this time of year when it became clear to me that it was time to move on from the mission with which I had served for 17 years, the last 15 of which I had served as Director of Refugee Ministries.
A US refugee resettlement agency was hiring a new Executive Director, so I applied for the job. To be honest, the idea of serving refugees without needing to raise personal support was quite appealing. While on a telephone interview with the board, an unmistakable sense of conviction washed over me. This was not the job to which God was calling me. I protested. “Why not?” But I knew that voice. It was to be trusted – and obeyed. I told the board that I was no longer a candidate. The call ended soon afterwards.
But what then?
I felt that God was calling me to work internationally with refugees. But I couldn’t find any mission agencies that had a focus on ministry among refugees internationally.
I asked a group of respected friends to help me navigate this stretch of my journey. I needed their prayers, counsel and advice. I remain most grateful to Wes, Bruce, Stephen, Allan, Dan and Jim for walking through this with me.
An unthinkable thought surfaced. “If it doesn’t exist perhaps you should start such a mission.” It was both persistent and disturbing. I tried my best to ignore it.
It was April of 2009 that the next milestone was reached. Friends serving refugees in Kenya invited Donna and I on a safari in Kenya (see photo) – a safari during which we imagined what a mission agency specifically designed for refugee ministry might look like.
While following rhinos, elephants, giraffe, lions and countless gazelles in the shadow of Africa’s second highest mountain, a vision was emerging. It seemed both far fetched and compelling.
The seed from which IAFR would soon grow had been planted.
It was 40 years ago, the spring of 1979. I was nearing the end of my Junior year at Taylor University. Something had gripped my gut about a year earlier – a restlessness that churned. My faith in Jesus had ignited and changed everything. I was feeling the need to leave the familiarity of my culture and serve Jesus.
The university had a board listing summer mission opportunities. I stood in front of it, looking for something that didn’t require a foreign language (I was almost failing Spanish). It had to be cheap, because I was pretty sure support raising wasn’t going to be easy. But it had to be cross-cultural.
There is was. Alaska! A 10 week opportunity to work among Eskimos of Slavic descent. They spoke English. It was cross-cultural. I would only need to raise $500. I was convinced that had to be it.
I applied for the opportunity with Slavic Gospel Association (SGA). They accepted me. Another confirmation that this was the right path! I started raising support.
A few weeks later I got a call from SGA. They informed me that they had turned over their work in Alaska to another mission. The opportunity for which I had signed up was no longer an option.
But they went on to ask if I would consider serving with their summer Bible smuggling ministry based out of Austria. 1979 was in the middle of the Cold War and Communist countries were severely restricting the availability of Bibles within their borders. Churches were under heavy government surveillance. Many believers were imprisoned. Some mission agencies had set up ministries that printed and smuggled Bibles to our brothers and sisters in these countries.
I was 21 and this sounded pretty cool. It didn’t require any foreign language proficiency. It was cross-cultural. The only problem was that it required $1,500 in support. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. But I told the mission that if the Lord provided, I would be happy to go.
God bless those of you who responded to my support letters! The finances were coming in. I was amazed at how God used Alaska to direct me to Austria. And then I got another call from SGA.
“We see that you’ve studied some Spanish…”
They went on to tell me that they had a Ukrainian born American serving in the Canary Islands that really wanted some summer missionaries. His ministry included getting Bibles and Christian literature onto ships from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in East Europe. He was also finding creative ways to share the story of Jesus with sailors while on leave on the islands.
I had no idea where the Canary Islands were. I found a map and started looking around Jamaica. I finally located them 60 miles off the shores of Morocco. This was a long way from Alaska..
I was a bit disappointed as the idea of Bible smuggling sounded exciting. The Canaries (Spain) didn’t add up with what I was looking for either. The opportunity wasn’t cheap. It required Spanish. How could God send me there? But something in my gut said to say yes. So I did.
All of this was playing out in my life 40 years ago. While I believed that God was somehow in the details of the twists and turns, I had no clue just how significant this would be when it came to the vocation and trajectory of my life.
In June of 1979 I met my first refugees in the Canary Islands. They were from Bulgaria and Romania. As far as I knew then, they were not the reason I had come to the Canaries. I feel differently today.
I am beginning the long trip back to Minnesota from Kakuma today. It is difficult to imagine two places more different from each other. It’s the same planet – but they are different worlds. I’m thankful for the privilege of being part of both worlds.
Click here to see some short posts and photos from this past visit.
I’ll be visiting Kakuma refugee camp again later this month. As always, I consulted with my friend and IAFR colleague, Pastor Gatera, to offer perspective on my trip priorities.
Pastor Gatera spent 20 years of his life as a refugee there and now lives here in the Twin Cities. He is a man of great wisdom and faith. What a joy to partner together!
This visit to Kakuma will include several days of theological training with a group of 25 Christian leaders (men and women). Professor George Kalantzis from Wheaton College will be doing the training as he has for the past several years.
I’ll also be following up on active IAFR projects in Kakuma (refugee scholarship program, IDP water project, KISOM building project, Shelter for refugees, Refugee youth camp, 2020 refugee pastors’ conference and more).
Of course the best part of any visit is reconnecting with our friends there.