How is the best way to be a missionary? For Pat Maddox the answer was simple.
Photo by Joe Westbury, Christian Index
For Pat Maddox, the influx of refugees into the Atlanta-area town of Clarkston reshaped her southern demeanor and revived her call to missions, spawning the multifaceted Friends of Refugees ministry in 2005.
You just put yourself in the shoes of people you want to serve, understand their needs and then meet those needs without expecting anything in return.
That was the genesis of Friends of Refugees and many other servanthood ministries now under its umbrella at Clarkston International Bible Church in metro Atlanta.
It’s notable that Maddox’s call was largely tied to the decline of her own church, the former Clarkston Baptist Church, and its struggle to find footing in a transitional community.
Maddox’s earliest memories of the church are of a vibrant congregation with well-attended worship services and a full staff. Typical of many churches of the time, Clarkston Baptist was largely Anglo “with maybe a person or two of color here and there. But there were not many, to be sure,” she remembers.
Yet, within a few years, that sheltered existence – open to ethnic diversity but preferring the status quo – quickly eroded and the church declined to about 75 members. The world was quickly changing and, in doing so, coming to America. And Georgia. And more importantly, to Clarkston.
First, solidly middle-class African Americans moved to town. Clarkston First Baptist Church, an African American congregation, grew and began to rival her own church in size and outreach. In fact, First Baptist’s growth closely paralleled Clarkston Baptist’s decline.
Photo by Joe Westbury/Christian Index
The Refugee Sewing Society provides equipment and materials to help women supplement their income from items sold in their own store at Clarkston International Bible Church. Many of the women and their families escaped war and genocide to come to the United States.
That caused some cultural discomfort – some members moved out of the community – but things settled down. Then the next decade brought refugees and immigrants from the far corners of the world.
“If there was a war someplace,” Maddox says, “you could rest assured that people from those areas would be resettled by the government in Clarkston.
“The Bosnians were the first ones I remember coming around 1992 when the war broke out. They were then followed by Croatians. Both were facing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Serbians, who also eventually arrived.”
That mass influx was the last straw, reactivating Clarkston Baptist’s long decline.
But it wasn’t just social change that caused the exodus. Several factors came together in a very short time that cast the church into a tenuous position, including:
– Clarkston Baptist was aging and many longtime members moved from their two-story homes to ranch-style homes farther removed, the single-floor homes being easier to navigate.
– Others did not like the rise in traffic as Atlanta spread further into the suburbs, engulfing sleepy communities like Clarkston.
– Still others sensed the loss of their homogenous lifestyle and moved to Lilburn, Lawrenceville, Snellville, Grayson, Loganville, any enclave that seemed a safer place to live – not safe from crime but safe from social change.
There was just too much change, too fast.
‘Meeting these people …’
Maddox does not hide her southern roots and admits she grew up in a prejudiced home.
“But meeting these people, getting to know them, completely changed my outlook on life,” she recounts. “Until then, I was always polite but rather removed from very much conversation.”
Looking further back into her past, Maddox reflects on that early call to missions, thinking she would possibly serve on a foreign mission field far from Clarkston. She did not realize that the foreign field someday would move into her neighborhood and she would be much older before she responded to that call.
In her first steps into missions, Maddox distributed food donated by a Publix grocery from her car in the parking lot of Kristopher Woods Apartments. As word soon spread, she was swamped with needy hands outstretched for sustenance.
It became necessary to develop an alphabetized system of distribution. Through it, people arrived at a pre-determined hour based on their apartment building’s identification letter. Eventually she began operating out of her centrally-located home before moving the ministry to the Clarkston Baptist. Along the way she began driving a van to pick up children for the church, continuing to do so for a dozen years.
Maddox also helped start a Vacation Bible School, with 80 children coming to hear about Jesus on the tennis courts at Kristopher Woods. Parents began attending to help with their children’s activities and crafts.
Communicating without language
Adults soon began seeking her out, holding a sore jaw signaling a severe toothache or even an abscessed molar. Then, when the church began distributing donated furniture, others showed up – also with no grasp of the English language. Transactions were finalized through hand gestures. Children, quick to pick up conversational English, eased the communication somewhat by translating for their parents.
Then came the Kurds and groups from various parts of Africa – Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi, Bantu Somalis (slaves to the dominant Somali population).
And that is when she launched a loose-knit ministry that began to take some organizational form in December 1995.
In 1999 she walked away from her 36-year nursing career when the church acknowledged her as a missionary. She devoted herself to that long-delayed calling, stepping away from her salary and stepping out on faith. Then-pastor Phil Kitchin was instrumental in sharing her vision and working to incorporate refugees into the Kingdom and community.
Others also took note of the needs and pitched in to help. In 2005, First Baptist Church of Woodstock stepped in to help legally register the ministry as a nonprofit. Maddox simply named it Friends of Refugees.
Clarkston Baptist became a destination ministry site for churches wanting a multicultural missions experience. Many, such as Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., added their help.
Clarkston Baptist reborn
In 2005 the 122-year-old Clarkston Baptist Church changed its identity by merging with its larger Filipino congregation and a Nigerian congregation to become Clarkston International Bible Church. Today about 150 members of the combined churches meet in a multicultural service at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays. In addition, the church has moved toward a groundbreaking partnership with the North American Mission Board that will bring it into the national spotlight as a hub for refugee ministry.
“I loved the refugees,” Maddox reflects, “and thought how hard it would be for me to be in their shoes, having to start a new life somewhere in which I did not understand the language, had to find a job and pay my own rent and buy groceries that I didn’t understand what was in the package … all within a few months of arriving.
“Whatever they needed, I and my volunteers –- some from Northside Community Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that was already working in Bosnia – stepped in to be the face and hands of Christ,” she says.
Clarkston International Bible Church provided space for new ethnic congregations to gather and learn about the gospel in their heart language. Some grew and moved out, others still remain. Today seven congregations call the sprawling red-brick building their home: Atlanta Nepali Christian Church, Voices of Hope (Congolese), Karen Christian Fellowship (Burmese), Burmese Home Group Network, Sudanese Christian Missionary Church, Ray of Hope International Church (Bhutanese) and Vertical Life Church (Pakistani).
Friends of Refugees, now a multi-faceted parachurch ministry, operated a family of seven Christian community development programs last year with 25 partner churches and 13 full-time staff. Its footprint has grown to include a community garden for 104 families, the Refugee Sewing Society, youth programs, a summer camp and job networking and technology assistance, among others.
Maddox is overwhelmed at how the ministry has grown and how she eventually fulfilled that call to missions.
“Early in life I had always hoped to make an international missions trip but family and marriage and career obligations were just too demanding. Life was full,” she remembers.
Today her daughter says Maddox is “25 years old, going on 79” in July.
She has since stepped aside from the day-to-day operations and turned over the leadership to a younger generation – but Friends of Refugees remains true to its faith-based roots.
“This has blessed me more than anything I could have ever imagined. It is something totally outside of myself, sort of like God was moving pieces around a chessboard, putting all the pieces together as He made His moves.”
Maddox pauses for a moment and looks back on the struggles of those early years. “Friends of Refugees has always been about finding a need and meeting it,” she says. “And all of this was born out of the question, ‘What do you do when your congregation flees?’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, christianindex.org, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.)