As some of you may know, I do ministry that revolves around refugees, people who have left their land because of various troubles. I have kind of an ambiguous relationship with this work — not because it is bad but because I commute between three towns in Michigan, spending a lot of time on the road and trying to overcome the suspicion that makes people withdraw their resources from refugees. So far, thank God, I have persevered in what God has given me to do. But occasionally doubt sinks in; I become frustrated and question whether this is really what I want to do every day.
From a purely secular perspective, my ministry looks like social work. I visit refugees, interpret for them if they happen to speak one of the languages I speak, help them run their daily errands, read and explain any mail they receive, and arrange some of their activities (like setting up a driving test). Once in a while when the family gives me permission, I share the message of Christ in order to give them hope and pass on the memory of the Hope Giver. Sometimes I’m a bridge between them and the church that sponsors the family, organizing a meeting with the pastor or a team leader. Other times I’m attending team meetings in churches that wrestle with the questions of communication so I can share my experience or knowledge to help them overcome any barriers.
As any ministry, it is filled with both joys and challenges. When I take a refugee friend of mine to a driving test and he passes, it makes my day. When they invite me into their home to eat or when they laugh from the bottom of their heart at my unintended mistranslation, it fills me with lightness and energy. I feel like I’m doing something that matters, that I’m planting seeds of the gospel. Other times, the challenges take over and mess up the day. Say your friend does not pass the driving test for a second time. Or for religious reasons, the family does not buy food from their local store because it’s not kosher, so they want you to give them a ride to a city miles away so that they can buy kosher food from a kosher store. Or say you drive an hour under heavy snow and arrive so tired that all your desire for interaction melts away.
I take it daily as it comes. But once in a while, my interaction with refugees abundantly rewards me through the insights they give like attending a refugee church plant and realizing that the worship service can be chaotic yet still authentic. I call it “holy chaos” — people singing at the top of their lungs, children running to and fro, some crying, some praying out loud, some dancing. You hear the sermon in one language; then you hear the interpreter in another, who occasionally cannot translate a certain word, and you see the congregants helping him by coming up with the words right there and then. You hear “amens” and gasps as the pastor tells a story not just with his mouth but with his whole body.
I want to share one of those rewarding episodes that has stayed with me for a long time. Once, I went to dinner with my Afghan friend, a young and talented refugee man who aspired to become an engineer. I had a specific reason for this meeting: the sponsoring church found a job for him, and he worked well. Somehow the church discovered that the young man never kept his money in a bank account, instead withdrawing it as soon as the money was deposited. Knowing how important it is to have a well-maintained bank account and to establish good credit in this country, they were concerned. The re-settlement team leader suggested that I talk to my friend and see if there was anything to be alarmed about. Neither they nor I knew whether the reasons for his behavior were personal or cultural or whether there was something more behind it that the church needed to investigate. So off we went to have dinner. I asked him about his plans, encouraged him, and he taught me a few things about computers that I didn’t know.
Then our discussion got a bit personal. I wanted to ask more questions but did not want to lead him, knowing how sensitive family matters can be. At some point I spoke about the importance of credit and debit cards and bank accounts. Then my friend revealed to me the reason he never left his money in the bank. On one hand, he didn’t trust banks because in Russia, the country where he lived as an immigrant from Afghanistan, the banks were corrupt and somehow manipulated people’s money for their own gain. On the other hand, he was sending money to his other family members who were stuck in Germany, Russia, and Afghanistan to alleviate their needs. My friend was more concerned with his relatives’ well-being on the other side of the globe than with his own future in this country.
His dedication to his (grand)parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins struck me as strong and elastic ties of kinship that although were stretched across these countries were not yet broken. I realized these familial obligations that he fulfilled without resentment sustained him spiritually as a member of a larger, invisible community not yet destroyed by extreme individualism. His ties were nurturing him emotionally, and despite his own financial difficulties, he gained strength through this invisible community. Suddenly, I became aware of his larger network, and its strength exuded across the table.
We still meet occasionally. And he still helps his family back in Europe and Central Asia. His attitude and friendship are a stark contrast to all the propaganda we see about refugees that makes them out to be the next scapegoat of this nation. Their humanity is denied in political arguments, reducing them to numbers and seeing them only through the lenses of economy and demographics. Before they even enter this country, their race, ethnicity, and religion are dragged into the halls of “the land of the free” to be questioned.
Why am I saying this? Because I want to encourage you to meet refugees and befriend them, if for nothing else than for the sake of overcoming your prejudices and broadening your own views. You will understand humanity better and yourself deeper by befriending people who are used as pawns in a game of the powers that be.
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