Garden City church extends love to refugees

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Nations coming to Western Kansas; USMB church responding

by Myra Holmes

 

 

Akoon Kenyang is one of many refugees that Garden Valley Church is learning to help as they open their heart to new waves of refugees settling in their Garden City, Kan., community. While it’s not a formal “ministry” of the church, there’s clearly a growing awareness and willingness to serve refugees at GVC.

The congregation is “poised and available to love and meet needs,” says Christine Lightner, GVC member and volunteer with International Rescue Committee, an international refugee relief agency. She sees an openness to loving the stranger in their midst, and she is often stopped on a Sunday with “how can we help” questions. 

“It’s God raising up individuals,” she says. “It’s the body working together.”

 

What is a refugee?

Immigrants are those who choose to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere, while refugees are forced to flee in the face of persecution, war or violence.  It’s often a life-and-death situation.

Kenyang points out that refugees usually feel they have no choice but to go to extreme measures, as he had to do in crossing a river under gunfire, to escape. “What you going to do—to die or to live? If you die, OK. But if you cross the river, you might have a better life.”

Some people live as refugees for only a short time, but sometimes, temporary housing in a refugee camp extends into many years. According to one report, refugees remain uprooted for an average of 17 years. For example, in one family that recently came to Garden City, the parents had been in a refugee camp since the 1980s; the children had been born in the refugee camp and knew nothing else.

Lightner says that as soon as they are placed in the U.S., the “refugee” designation is removed for official purposes. But it often takes a long time for the scars to heal and their new community to truly feel like home. They are, as she says, “misplaced people.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that at least 13 million people worldwide qualified as refugees in a mid-2014 report; over 5 million more are now living in camps. Click here for more on resources for responding to refugees.

 

Refugees come to Garden City

Like Kenyang, many refugees these days find their way to Garden City by word of mouth. But many are also coming to the town through more official channels. The U.S. Department of State works with nine agencies to resettle those with refugee status in 190 designated communities. International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one of those agencies and works in Garden City as a branch of their Wichita, Kan., office, bringing an estimated 75 refugees from all over the world to the area each year.  

Why Garden City? On a practical level, the Tyson meat packing plant provides abundant work that requires little in the way of job or language skills. And this community of around 30,000 is big enough to provide many of the conveniences of a city, but small enough to be less intimidating than, say, New York City. 

But mostly, “God has chosen Garden City,” says Lightner, who is thrilled to see the nations coming to her doorstep. It’s an opportunity, she says, for the church not only to obey the biblical command to love foreigners but also to impact the world. “Our reaching out to them is a part of God’s continual work in reaching the nations with his love,” she says.

 

Welcoming the stranger

As a tangible way to welcome newcomers to their community, GVC hosted a celebration for World Refugee Day last June. The United Nations marks World Refugee Day every year on June 20 “to recognize and applaud the contribution of forcibly displaced people throughout the world,” according to the UNHCR website.

GVC partnered with IRC for a two-hour event, which offered information about the refugee community and provided an opportunity to meet refugees in Garden City. Church volunteers helped promote the event, set up and decorated for the event in the church’s family center, brought cookies and snacks and cleaned up.

“It was a springboard to help the community connect with the needs of the IRC,” says Lightner.

 

Meeting physical needs

As a volunteer for IRC, Lightner connects needs with resources in the community. And the needs are great.

IRC helps refugees in Garden City find housing, but the government checks they receive for start-up costs usually falls far short. Often, the refugees arrive with literally nothing but the clothes on their back. The more fortunate may have a small bag of personal belongings. So they need rice—and a kettle in which to cook it—chairs, bedding and towels, clothing.

This is one area where GVC has been able to provide practical help. The church has set aside a storage room in the church to collect donations of furniture, housewares—anything that might be helpful. Lightner says the congregation is eager to help and has been quite willing to donate what they can.

 

Refugees need a friend

Even beyond the physical needs, Lightner says, refugees need a friend. “They need a person or people who have time for them—people who have the grace and the patience and the unconditional love to walk with them,” she says.  

Sometimes, adjusting to a new culture means refugees need help with those little things that are often taken for granted, like how to get money from an ATM or how to adjust a thermostat. “They seem simple, but we don’t even realize that they are learned skills,” Lightner says.

Refugees often come out of trauma, which can “bubble up” in unexpected ways. “Only the Lord really knows what they need,” Lightner says.

When that trauma comes out in poor choices or emotional distress that words can’t express, especially across language barriers, they need someone to simply be there, to laugh or cry with them, to be still with them. “They need someone to just be present with them,” Lightner says.

Once they’re beyond survival mode and have perhaps worked through some of the trauma, refugees need a friend who is willing to drop by for a visit, to invite them to the community parade or to sit with them at the concert in the park. These kinds of small expressions of friendship are what will truly make the newcomers begin to feel like they are home.

Such a gift of presence requires time, which, as Lightner says, is too often “a rare commodity” in busy American life. “We have to be patient to walk through life with them.”

 

Who do refugees need, not what

Lightner says that often people ask what refugees need, “but the ultimate question is who do they need.” Ultimately, only God can comfort those who are grieving the loss of loved ones far away, and only he can promise justice for atrocities suffered.

Not everyone has opportunity to meet the physical needs of refugees—to “take their hand or take them a loaf of bread,” as Lightner says. But every Christian can pray. So she urges Christians to pray that refugees will come to know God and that the churches in their communities will show them the love of Christ. “It’s such a lifeline, if we can connect them to Christ.”

 

Friendship a two-way street

Those who invest in refugees find their faith enriched as well. Lightner says that if each person is made in God’s image, getting to know diverse people sheds light on God’s character, too.

“I grow in knowledge of God by meeting these people,” she says. “I am so blessed by it.”

As her daughters, ages seven and nine, take part in serving the family’s refugee friends, they are learning important lessons as well. She recalls how her younger daughter mentioned working on the car of her “Sudanese friend” in casual conversation. “She’s learning from a young age how to love,” Lightner says.

Steve Ensz, pastor of GVC, adds that American Christians have much to learn from those from different backgrounds—such as the deep sense of community present among the Lost Boys. As more and more refugees become part of the GVC family, sometimes five different languages are represented in the congregation: English, Low German, Filipino, Spanish and various Sudanese dialects. While the variety can be challenging, it’s also a “head start” on the diversity that will be found in heaven, Ensz says.

 

Christians’ job to love and welcome

Although media attention has highlighted a great deal of fear surrounding refugees coming to the United States, Lightner hasn’t seen hesitation or fear at GVC or in the community. She says the job of Christians is simply to love and welcome. “God is sovereign. He’s in control,” she says. If a terrorist should infiltrate the community in the guise of a refugee, she says she and the GVC congregation would welcome them and hopefully see them “captured by God’s love.”

Ensz agrees: “We’re called to reach out. We have to have the compassion of Christ to reach out to all people, all nations, especially those who have been marginalized in our society.”

Lightner says fear won’t deter the church’s efforts. “It’s not going to change our strategy. We’re going to love the foreigners in our midst.”

 

Related stories:

"Lost Boy" now found in Christ

Once lost, Akoon Kenyang is now found in Christ and has a new home at Garden Valley Church (GVC), Garden City, Kan.

Men share their experiences as refugees

Akoon Kenyang, Peter Malual, Joseph Wani and Ajok Aruei, former "Lost Boys of Sudan" living in Garden City, Kan., have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing refugees.

Related Stories

Garden City congregation extends love to refugees

While helping refugees is not a formal ministry of the church, there is a growing awarenes at Garden Valley Church of the importance of being aware of and serving the refugees that have come to their community.

"Lost Boys" share experiences

Akoon Kenyang, Peter Malual, Joseph Wani and Ajok Aruei, former "Lost Boys of Sudan" who now live in Garden City, Kan.,  have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing refugees.

– See more at: http://www.usmb.org/departments/Christian-Leader/article/Lost-Boy-now-found-in-Christ.html#sthash.F43DlLaU.dpuf

Related Stories

Garden City congregation extends love to refugees

While helping refugees is not a formal ministry of the church, there is a growing awarenes at Garden Valley Church of the importance of being aware of and serving the refugees that have come to their community.

"Lost Boys" share experiences

Akoon Kenyang, Peter Malual, Joseph Wani and Ajok Aruei, former "Lost Boys of Sudan" who now live in Garden City, Kan.,  have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing refugees.

– See more at: http://www.usmb.org/departments/Christian-Leader/article/Lost-Boy-now-found-in-Christ.html#sthash.F43DlLaU.dpuf

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