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.
The association of refugee churches with whom we partner in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) has grown from 7 to over 160 churches since 2000. But they have not updated their organisational systems and structures to cope with the growth.
I spent most of today consulting with Pastor Gatera, former Chairman of the association of churches in Kakuma, to discuss some basic organisational structures/frameworks for them to consider.
It was time well spent as they now own land, a building and have a growing arsenal of ministry resources (including a solar projector).
While such discussion isn’t exactly exciting, it turns out that the long-term effectiveness of their work depends upon clear and strong organisational systems – no easy feat in a refugee camp environment.
My role is not to tell them what to do or how to do it. They are fully able to make such decisions. But they are cut off from the rest of the world and they value outside perspective and input as they think such things through.
I’ll be visiting them again next month and suspect that we will spend some concentrated time discussing these things in depth together.
Pastor Gatera’s parents were forced to flee Burundi back in 1972 when war broke out in the region. They were refugees in Rwanda when he was born. Although everyone identifies him as a Burundian even today, he’s never lived there.
I guess it is possible to be from a place we’ve never been.
The 1994 genocide forced him to take flight again. He was separated from his parents in the midst of the violence and chaos. He found refuge in eastern Congo. But war and violence followed him there too…
He was in the middle of his sophomore year of high school when he fled to Tanzania. He tried to resume his studies in the refugee camp there. But the political winds in Tanzania changed and refugees were no longer tolerated. They were to return back to their countries of origin. As strange as it may sound, for him it would mean returning to a place he’d never been.
He knew that was not safe, so he took to the bush and walked over 300 miles (off road so that he would not be caught and arrested) to neighboring Kenya. He was in need of safe shelter and didn’t know where to turn. So he went to a police station and asked to spend the night in the jail. You can imagine their surprise. Thankfully, they came up with a better option.
His first request for refuge was denied in Kenya. The authorities thought he should “return” to Burundi – a place they said he was from, although he had never been there.
He decided to make his way to Kakuma refugee camp in the remote northwest corner of Kenya. Because he was not recognized as a refugee, he was not legally supposed to be in the camp. But he saw no other option.
A refugee church took him in. They cared for him for the next three years. They helped him find shelter and shared their food rations with him. It was during this time in his life that he embraced Jesus as his Savior and Lord.
He says that Jesus completely changed his outlook on his life – past, present and future.
He ultimately received formal refugee status in Kenya and was able to live legally in the camp. It was there that he met his wife (from Rwanda) and raised their three children. He also served as a refugee pastor and gained widespread respect throughout the refugee, NGO and local community.
He was instrumental in the flourishing of an association of churches from within the refugee and surrounding host community. It continues to serve as a powerful force for good today. It is with this Association (United Refugee and Host Churches) that IAFR partners in Kakuma today. They are over 160 churches strong.
After 20 years in the camp, he and his family were resettled to the USA in the fall of 2016. Today he is a missionary with IAFR.
If you ask him,”Where are you from?“, he is likely to say he is from Burundi. A place to which he’s never been.
Is it really possible? -to be from a place we’ve never been?
If I read my Bible correctly, those of us who follow Jesus are citizens of the kingdom of God. It is a citizenship that transcends all other identities we might carry. It is a kingdom more real than any other. It is a kingdom coming. I guess I too am from a place I have not yet been.
Would you like to become a financial partner with Pastor Gatera and his remarkable ministry with IAFR? If so, it’s easy! Just click here and make an online donation today.