A variety of calls and messages from missionaries and refugees in Kenya, Greece, Costa Rica and Uganda lit up my WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger yesterday.
A family from Costa Rica updated me concerning their ministry among refugees from the Middle East passing through their country. They had been quite sick earlier in the week and were struggling to find the strength to serve refugees. They wanted me to know that God was answering prayers and that they were feeling better.
A Somali refugee mother in Kakuma refugee camp wanted to know if the rumors in the camp about the US opening up again to refugees were true. I had to tell her the bad news that nothing has changed on this end of the refugee highway. The door to the US is all but closed.
Meanwhile a missionary (and former refugee from Iran) connected with me via Facebook Messenger to ask for prayer concerning a series of difficult decisions before her related to the growing ministry in Athens. It seems no matter how she proceeds, there will be pain.
While I was chatting with her, another refugee/missionary started messaging me from Uganda. He’s originally from DR Congo and is a Christian leader in the refugee settlement he calls home. Someone has falsely accused him of being a Rwandan spy pretending to be a church leader. The accusation has been published to an online news source. Such an accusation puts his life in danger.
Meanwhile another refugee from Kakuma started messaging me. I know him from the annual refugee youth camp there, as he is one of the leaders. He’s been suffering from debilitating headaches for 3 years. He missed this year’s youth camp due to headaches. The camp hospital seems unable to help. He doesn’t know what to do.
The day ended at 11:30 PM with a series of WhatsApp texts from a dynamic young Christian from Iran who just wanted to say hi.
Just another Friday…
Beauty is under rated.
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
Photo: a refugee church in Athens
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.
Photo: A Persian feast in Athens
I arrived in Athens this afternoon. It is good to reconnect with old friends and colleagues here around a table filled with Persian specialties.
I am encouraged to hear how God is at work in the lives of refugees in this difficult place and look forward to seeing how we might encourage those serving them.
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.
He was originally from Somalia, but when things fell apart there, he was forced to flee to Kenya. He spent something like 25 years in Kakuma refugee camp. No wonder he calls it home. And that’s where we got to know each other. I always looked forward to visiting him when I was in Kakuma.
A few years ago he was resettled to the US and now lives about 25 minutes from my home in Minneapolis. I think we both thought that we would see a lot more of each other here. But it turns out we are both pretty busy with life. It was nice yesterday when we finally managed to meet for a long overdue cup of tea followed by lunch at his favorite local Somali restaruant.
Our conversation went all over the place as we caught up together. But there was a recurring theme: “We’ve got to do something to bring our people together here.”
He’s right. I know people from “my world” that are afraid of Somali people. He knows people in “his world” that feel rejected and even hated by people here. We agreed that if this continues, it will not lead to anything good.
It is challenging to try and bring our different worlds together. But when we think less in terms of the masses and more in terms of our friends it becomes doable. Still, even bringing our friends together is likely to prove difficult – mostly because people are so busy and spread apart. We will still give it a try.
I’m going to start by connecting with the growing group of friends here who have traveled with me to Kakuma.
If we can spread a table and bring our worlds together a few lives at a time, the false assumptions, fears and distance between us might just begin to fall away. And that just might help usher in a day when our worlds become one.
I came across this chart while preparing for a training session I’ll be giving this weekend to a group of Christians serving resettled refugees in San Diego. It shows how the use of the word “friendship” has been in decline over the past 200+ years, starting at 1800 and ending at 2008. It resonates as true and struck a deep chord of sorrow in my heart.
As I reflect on this I realize how often I speak in terms of the need to build relationships rather than friendships. Perhaps because the word “relationships” feels less demanding?
While friendships grow out of relationships, all too often I settle for less than the pursuit of friendship with others. And yet it is friendship for which I long. I bet that is true for most of us – including those who have been forced to flee their homes and homelands.
Among the things I want to emphasize in the training session is the need for us to not only help refugees in “practical” ways and through various programs – but by building authentic friendships with them.
“We cared so deeply that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our own lives as well. That is how beloved you have become to us.”
The Apostle Paul | 1 Thessalonians 2:8
It was a tough beginning to this past week. An IAFR missionary family that has been preparing to join our work in Lille, France, was deep into the final countdown before taking the physical leap across the Atlantic.
Earlier this year, they sold and moved out of their home and into a temporary space. The husband put in his final day at work last week. It was a good job with Mayo Clinic. Taking those kinds of steps with a family is no small deal. So you can imagine what it felt like when after he clocked out for the last time, they received notification from the French embassy: Their visa application was refused.
In response, we set our IAFR service team into full swing.
I had lunch with the husband on Monday, primarily to offer support and to try and understand what might be behind the refusal. Tim Barnes, IAFR Executive VP, took the lead from there to coordinate communication with the family, the service team and the our Ministry Leader in France. We sought out and received helpful counsel from Greater Europe Mission as they have several expat missionaries serving in France.
The result was that the family was ready to schedule a re-application appointment for this coming Tuesday in Chicago.
I’m thankful for the IAFR service team as well as the missionary family as we were able to navigate this efficiently and effectively together. And I know we are all praying that this re-application will find favor with the authorities so that the family can hop their plane to France as planned in early April.
Our prayers are not in vain. For we know that God sees, God hears and God cares.