It was a joy and blessing to have Dr. George Kalantzis from Wheaton College (IL) lead our morning sessions exploring the nature and meaning of the gospel during our annual IAFR missionary conference this year.
George has played a key role in our partnership with Wheaton College and its Humanitarian Disaster Institute in the past 4+ years in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya). He plans to travel to Kakuma with me again in March 2020 to continue investing in the refugee church leaders with whom we partner. Dr. Margaret Diddams, Provost of Wheaton College, also plans to join us on that visit.
We thank God for partners like George who not only teach theology but also make themselves fully available to reflect deeply on the Gospel.
I met with a man who is seeking asylum here in the US. We spent about 3 1/2 hours together. After sharing much of his own story, he told me about his wife and son, living on the edge of a war zone half a world away in Africa. He worries about their safety and lives with the daily stress of not knowing if the US will let him stay and rebuild his life. He can’t do much to help his family until he has a status here that will enable him to apply for family reunification. In the meantime, he can hardly sleep.
This morning I got an email from a friend who has been a refugee for many years. As a refugee pastor, he started a ministry caring for the most vulnerable people in his area. But last night, a friend told him that he needed to flee his country of refuge due to false rumors that have inflamed other refugees to the point of seeking to harm him. So he fled to a neighboring country. In his email, he was asking if I knew anyone at the UN in the country that might be able to help him get UN refugee status. I don’t. But I was able to connect him with a friend who spent 20 years as a refugee in that country. I’m hoping he might be able to help this man find a safe space in which he can then figure out what his options are.
Forced displacement like this happens to 37,000 new people every day. When numbers become faces the weight of it all becomes real.
The church is complaining a lot about your absence in Makawi for a very long time!!
This came via WhatsApp today from a refugee pastor and friend named Olivier. He and his family have been in Dzaleka refugee camp for a long long time.
We often keep in touch via WhatsApp – often just a “hello” or an accusatory “did you forget me?” starts a brief interaction.
No one likes being forgotten – especially during a prolonged period of uncertainty and suffering.
He sent me a bunch of photos of his church worshipping in the camp. It is good to see them – and to seem them making due with their roofless church building for now. We hope to help them solve that challenge soon.
Thankfully, two of my IAFR colleagues visit Pastor Olivier in Dzaleka at least twice each year. So he knows he isn’t forgotten by us.
As I already travel to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya an average of 3 times per year, I just don’t have the bandwidth to add a visit to Malawi. Although I am hoping to somehow find a way to get there in 2020.
I had a lunch with Pastor Gatera – a former refugee now part of the IAFR team.
It is the 25th anniversary of the infamous Rwandan genocide. Both them are survivors of that darkness. I wanted to give him opportunity to talk about it if he wanted. I asked how he and his wife were doing. His eyes briefly welled up with tears. He managed to hold them back.
He passionately spoke of the need for people to learn from the past and then move on toward a better future. He feels many survivors are stuck in the past. The wounds fester. They still need healing. The ethnic tensions that fueled it may be well hidden but they are alive and well. Sadly, it seems that the powers that be are working to stop healing and learning from taking place.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether the fear and hatred being stirred up toward different people groups in our own culture doesn’t carry with it the potential for similar violence. We too need to learn, heal and choose to move toward a better future or we might find ourselves suddenly caught in a similar undertow.
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.
I’ll be speaking at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richfield, MN, tomorrow morning. I’m taking Pastor Jean Pierre Gatera with me as the church asked me to share about the refugee church and Pastor Gatera spent 20 years of his life in Kakuma refugee camp – and many of those years as a refugee pastor. I can think of no better way to introduce them to the refugee church than to give them the privilege of listening to Pastor Gatera.
Photo: IAFR’s Pastor Gatera speaking to a diverse group of pastors and people engaged in ministry among refugees in St. Cloud, MN
IAFR Board member, Pastor Brian Doten, set up a meeting with Calvary Community Church Outreach Pastor, Steve Eckert, in St. Cloud with a group of people there that are engaged in ministry among resettled refugees.
They invited Pastor Jean Pierre Gatera and I to introduce him and the work of IAFR to the group.
It was an encouraging Saturday afternoon together. There appears to be a good possibility for some ministry partnerships to grow out of the time together.
We are praying that meetings like this will help form the support team needed to partner with Pastor Gatera in his ministry. He is a remarkable leader – both gifted and experienced. I can’t wait to see him more fully released into the vision God has given him.