Atlanta

I’m at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport (aka home away from home) waiting for my flight to Atlanta where I look forward to a cup of coffee with Sharon Tonzo (our Filipina Ministry Leader serving there) and a group of potential ministry partners meeting in the home of John Swale (board member) tonight.

It’s nice to be flying domestic for a change.

IAFR Athens

Ilir and Kate Cami with their children

Ilir and Kate Cami joined the IAFR team this month. They are no strangers as we served together many years ago. They’ve been serving refugees in Athens for more than 2 decades. Their joining IAFR will enable them to continue serving with a Greek nonprofit called One Heart – the Founder/Director of which I have also known for decades.

Ilir came to Greece as a refugee from Albania back in the 90s. He became a Christian there and later received a calling from God to serve refugees. Kate is originally from the US and met Ilir while serving refugees in Athens. Ilir is among the most passionate people I know when it comes to introducing people to Jesus. Kate brings organisation and stability to both their ministry and family.

I have also known Sahar, the founder/director of One Heart, for many years. Originally from Iran, she also came to Athens as a refugee and became a follower of Jesus there. She began serving refugees as a missionary shortly afterwards. Today, she not only provides leadership to One Heart. She and her husband (from the Netherlands) lead a Persian church in Athens that brings together about 100 people from Iran and Afghanistan for worship and mutual encouragement. Of course, Ilir and Kate are also supporting this fellowship.

IAFR is partnering with One Heart by sharing both missionaries and resources because we are pursuing the same vision with similar values and a common faith in Jesus.

Click here to learn more about this new IAFR ministry location!

3 things to ponder

I was introduced to a friend’s mother-in-law after worship this morning. She will be leading a short-term team to serve refugees in Athens with another mission agency later this year. She thinks this might be something God is calling her into in a long term capacity. She was looking for helpful insights.

Her time was limited. So lucky her. At risk of being blunt and possibly rude, I unloaded three things for her to ponder in rapid succession.

First, I encouraged her to see refugees as more than people in need. See them as an important part of the solution to the many challenges they face. See them as partners. I’ve never met a person that likes to be pitied.

I explained how de-humanizing it is for people to be treated only as people in need. Because of this, refugees often feel others view them as less than human. Well-meaning transactional ministries (e.g. I give them something that they need and they take it) can suck the air out of a soul.

But it is re-humanizing when we affirm them as people of value with something worthwhile to offer. This is why is it so important to receive their often generous hospitality. They have something beautiful to give – and we might just need it.

Second, at risk of sounding like a heretic, I shared with her how many Christians frame refugee ministry primarily as an opportunity to “reach” people from “unreached” countries with the gospel. While I am in no way saying it is bad or wrong to share Jesus with refugees, I am saying that if that is the primary reason we pursue them we may well fail to truly love them.

We dare not be like the many people out there who feed on vulnerable people. They see their vulnerability as an opportunity to further their personal agenda. Some exploit refugees for political gain. Some lure refugees and asylum seekers into their human trafficking or drug smuggling rackets. Some exploit and abuse them for their own twisted ego trip or pleasure. Others see their vulnerability as an opportunity to recruit them into their religious group. All of these people see refugees as a means to further their own agenda.

As followers of Jesus, we should step into their lives without an agenda beyond letting them know that we care for them and that spending time with them is valuable in and of itself. Rather than seeing them as “unreached people” we need to see them as people – people caught up in the suffering and chaos of a world turned upside down and inside out. People in a world in which they have been robbed of place.

I began comparing refugee ministry to that of going to a hospital to visit people who are terminally ill. I was going to ask if she thought it was appropriate to go with the primary agenda of preaching the gospel. But she stopped me in my tracks.

I’m a nurse. I get it.

Third, I gave her one parting shot before we parted ways. Read the story of Hagar – camp out in it for a while.

She told me that she had just been reading it. I quickly underlined a couple of often overlooked aspects of the story of Hagar’s forced displacement.

The gospel to Hagar was that God hears, God sees and God cares. God told her to name her baby “Ishmael” – God Hears. She named the place God spoke to her “Beer Lahai Roi” – The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. She even did what no one else in Scripture did. She named God! El Roi – “God Who Sees”. These truths changed everything for Hagar. And this is a great starting point when sharing gospel with forcibly displaced people today.

Time was up.

Our brief encounter encouraged me this morning. I could see God is at work in her heart as she prepares to take a team of people into the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in Athens. May the refugees they meet experience the love of God and the hope of Jesus as this team goes to love them.

Hospitals and humanitarian space

Hospitals are places to which people go in response to a personal physical crisis. They exist to save lives and provide care until people are able to return home. They are populated with people in need of care and health care professionals – hardly a normal living environment.

No one mistakes a hospital for a long-term housing option. No one wants to be there any longer than necessary. No one calls a hospital home.

Although long-term patients might set a few relics from home in their room, they do not try to make their rooms mimic home. They long for the day they can leave and get on with life.

Such is life in humanitarian space.

Humanitarian space

I often describe the mission field in which we work as “humanitarian space”. Its no surprise that people struggle to understand what I mean, so I thought I’d use this blog to try and clarify.

This will likely be the first pondering of many on this subject. Hopefully it will become clear that missions in humanitarian space is not missions as usual. Missions is about contextualization and failure to understand the unique mission field of humanitarian space has ramifications.

IAFR was founded with this as a core conviction – the church belongs in humanitarian space. She has a vital, unique and essential role to play in the lives of forcibly displaced people. But the church at large has been slow to recognize that its mission includes humanitarian space. I’ll come back to this later. For now, let me try and describe what I mean by humanitarian space…

Humanitarian space is created to save lives. It is a space created in response to humanitarian crisis. It offers a safe place (refuge) to forcibly displaced people.

It is a created space. It is not a natural place. It only exists when people offer it to those in need. It has to be carved out of existing places. That is no easy task. Whether inhabited or not, we love our places and do not easily open them up to others – especially to people who are not like us. It is not easy to create space for others within the places we call our own.

It is supposed to be a temporary space, opening up as a refuge and then closing once the affected people can move on – ideally returning to their homes. In cases that do not offer the option of returning home, it offers refuge until some other kind of solution is made available – a solution that offers people place again.

But what happens when humanitarian space is needed for decades? What happens to people who are restricted to such space for generations? What happens to people who cannot return home and who are given no other option but to call humanitarian space their home? What happens to the hundreds of thousands of children born in humanitarian space and who have never known what it means to be from a place? What happens to children who see their father die in a refugee camp after spending 41 years in humanitarian space as did my friend Pastor Nomani?

I strongly caution my brothers and sisters to not set foot into humanitarian space before having contemplated such questions.

7 church roofs for 5k

Above: One of the 7 refugee churches IAFR has helped roof in Kalobeyei refugee settlement

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

The undertow

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.

Breaking loose

It seems that there are seasons – and even days – when everything seems to come together and things finally break loose as hoped. Today was one of those days…

A missionary family ready to join our work in Lille, France, were refused their visa by the government in March. This lead to a flurry of activity and a new application (submitted with a lot of prayer). The family received word today that France granted them their visa! Whew! They have already sold their house and quite their jobs so they are ready to go. Thank you, Jesus!

I also received word from a family serving refugees in Greece that they want to apply to join IAFR in order to continue their ministry with an agency that understands this kind of work. You will hear more about them at a later date. Let it suffice to say now that they will be a wonderful addition to the IAFR team.

Struggle and pain

A message from a young Christian man in Kakuma refugee camp today (including a few slight edits for readability)…

i’ve realised that my headache is the result of many sicknesses including the climate, the refugee process, thinking about my future and my lost/missing relatives and basic needs etc. it’s too much. sometimes i don’t want to talk about my life bcause the more i talk the more it hurts me especially at night i can’t sleep again. nightmares

Never underestimate the suffering and pain of being a refugee.