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
I’m sitting in the back pew of a Greek Evangelical Church in Athens where a large group of refugees has gathered for worship. Most are from Iran. Many were found by Jesus here. They have been following Him for only a few weeks or months. Several have brought friends along. Their singing a Persian worship song as I write.
What a privilege to be able to join with them tonight.
I depart for Athens tomorrow to visit the ministry of One Heart, a Christian agency that is serving refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The founder and director is a former refugee herself. Originally from Iran, she embraced Jesus while in Athens many years ago. We know each other from back when I served with International Teams.
She initially reached out to me a few months ago as her ministry was going through some major changes. As we talked it became apparent that our missions have a lot in common. I couldn’t help but think that if IAFR went to start a ministry in Greece, it would probably look a lot like what One Heart is doing.
We began to explore whether One Heart and IAFR might mutually benefit from a ministry partnership that included IAFR sending them missionaries and helping raise funds for select ministry projects in Greece.
And so my bags are packed and I will soon get a firsthand view of the ministry of One Heart together with our IAFR Europe Regional Leader (Paul Sydnor).
In the 20th Century it seems that missions assumed the way to develop was to establish themselves in as many countries as possible. I think the 21st Century is calling missions like IAFR to pursue a different paradigm – that of forming strategic partnerships with like-minded missions and agencies in other countries.
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 fly to Austin, TX, tomorrow where I will have the privilege of speaking at a Missions Roundtable of church leaders hosted by Rob Hoskins of One Hope.
They’ve asked me to share my story, about IAFR and some of the things I’m excited about in the coming year. It’s going to be tough as I only have 40 minutes. I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m not going to say most of this week 🙂 I welcome your prayers as I speak. May God use what I say to encourage these churches to follow him out onto the Refugee Highway.
Winter has finally found The Twin Cities – including a winter storm tonight that caused Delta to encourage me to reschedule my flight from tomorrow evening to tomorrow morning. Travel is often filled with the unexpected.
I spent a good part of this week meeting with IAFR leaders for that purpose – and to discuss priorities for the coming year.
I am thankful for Paul who supports our ministry leaders in Europe, and Jake who supports our ministry leaders serving East Africa and Sarah who supports our ministry leaders in the USA. I am also grateful for Rachel, who is focused on developing our refugee ministry training that is an important engine in the movement of God in the world today.
They do not get paid more to take on leadership responsibility. The idea of working for money isn’t a concern they have. They lead and serve because of a deeply rooted burden that demands that they do so. They are pursuing a mission and a vision, not a paycheck or notoriety.
There are not many people like them.
It is a joy and privilege to serve and support them as we pursue our common calling.
Photo: This morning’s speaker (Dr. Sam George, Lausanne Movement) at the COMIBAM gathering
It’s been a rich couple of days here in Costa Rica. I’ve been so impressed with how God is moving in churches and missions in Latin America concerning refugees.
I’ve met with a guy who has networked with Christians from Panama to Canada to help the church show up in the lives of refugees and migrants on the move in Central America.
I’ve reconnected with a friend from Brazil who leads a ministry that serves refugees in the country, assists refugees with resettlement to Brazil and that is serving refugees in the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.
I heard how a mission in Argentina has a vision “One Church, One Family” that is connecting churches with refugee families in ways that offer a welcome, extend community, and assistance with integration.
…and that is just a small sample of what these brothers and sisters are doing.
I had the privilege of speaking last night about the unique role of the church in helping refugees survive and recover from forced displacement. I’ve also been give 4x 1 hour small group sessions to introduce the work of IAFR, the Refugee Highway Partnership and World Evangelical Alliance to folks here as resources to support them as they seek the welfare of refugees.