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.
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.
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.
A group of churches in Jakarta (Indonesia) asked IAFR to meet with them on a Zoom conference call this past week. They have all found themselves engaging in refugee ministry and feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. The purpose of the call was to bring them together for the first time around this issue – and to get some perspective from IAFR. Rachel Uthmann (IAFR Director of Training) and I had the privilege of meeting with them for a couple of hours.
I was encouraged to hear how these churches are doing what they can to help asylum-seekers survive while in Jakarta. As Indonesia is not a signer of the UN Convention on Refugees, the situation for asylum seekers and refugees is extremely tenuous. They are not legally allowed to work and they are technically not supposed to be in country. Yet there are an estimated 14,000 women, children and men seeking refuge there. Most are from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are also refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea ,Somalia and other countries.
Churches are hosting refugee fellowships, teaching English, helping with food and housing, and sharing the gospel with them. They are struggling with identifying a clear goal for their ministries as there doesn’t seem to be an option for refugees to stay or for them to move on. There isn’t a pathway for them to legalize their status and rebuild their lives. They are stuck in survival mode.
What does it look like for local churches to minister to such people in the long term?
The convener of the call asked IAFR if we would consider coming to Jakarta to meet with churches there and offer some basic training. Indeed we are.