What does it take to reach the nations with the gospel? Ashley Unzicker discovered that a sincere commitment to ethnic diversity and a little bit of everyday evangelism can go a long way.
Ashley Unzicker displays pictures from The Jesus Storybook Bible to children at a Durham apartment complex. She began by taking things she would do with her children and planning for them on a larger scale at the complex. Anything from story time to water balloons, Unzicker is using this ministry to reach refugees in her area.
On a warm day last year, a few dozen children from around the world played on the lawn of a Durham, N.C., apartment complex, tossing water balloons at one another and giggling with each splash. Their parents watched in amusement. More kids hurried out to join the excitement. Many of those families came to the United States from nations torn by war, persecution or famine. They represent only a small fraction of more than 150,000 refugees in North Carolina’s Triangle region from Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries.
Unzicker saw the swelling crowd of migrants as an opportunity. “Oh my gosh,” she thought, “we could share the gospel right now.”
Unzicker called the group together and began to tell them about the Good News from a chapter in The Jesus Storybook Bible, a book by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
Unzicker’s aha moment – the sudden realization she could tell her foreign-born friends about Jesus on an average summer afternoon – was a turning point for her and the birth of a multiplying ministry.
What had begun as an attempt to increase the ethnic diversity of her friend group, eventually became a weekly outreach ministry to migrants called “The Yard.”
It has grown to include more than 60 regular volunteers and even spun off a similar initiative at another apartment complex.
Ethnic diversity fuels missional outreach
Four years earlier, Unzicker had come away from a conference session on ethnic diversity with a clear conviction.
“Do all of your friends look like you?” the speaker, Trillia Newbell, had asked. “If so, you need to change something.”
Over dinner that night, the answer became obvious to Unzicker. All of her friends were white women in the same stage of life.
“I knew something had to change,” she said.
Her commitment to diversity was sharpened into a missional strategy the following year when she travelled to New York City’s “Little Pakistan” with a church group. The neighborhood is known for its Muslim immigrant and refugee population.
The group’s evangelistic method was simple, and Unzicker began to see how it could fit into everyday life.
“I’m just going to parks here and meeting refugees,” she thought. “Why can’t I do this at home?”
She contacted a local refugee aid agency when she returned to North Carolina.
“I have three kids,” Unzicker told the aid workers. “I’m not able to do much, but I would love to be a friend to a migrant family.”
They connected her with a family of Afghan refugees.
She spent more than a year getting to know the mother of the family, but they eventually moved to another part of the U.S.
Unzicker was saddened to see her friend relocate, but eager to continue reaching out to migrants.
Another friend introduced her to a former Muslim Egyptian woman who regularly visited Syrian refugees living in an apartment complex in Durham.
Unzicker asked if she and her kids could tag along. She wanted to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and make some new friends.
Communicating with Arabic speakers was difficult, but the presence of her children was a surprising benefit.
“My kids became friends with their kids,” she said, “and their kids starting learning English.”
The weekly playdates went so well that Unzicker wanted to have a larger get-together with several families from the apartment complex.
That is when she decided to prepare more than 500 water balloons for an afternoon of fun.
Simple, reproducible ministry
The impromptu gospel-centered storytime that day was a hit, so Unzicker decided to make it a regular feature of their visits.
She also began to recruit volunteers for help with games and lessons. Leaders at The Summit Church lended support to the ministry by providing supplies and helping with volunteer coordination.
A Summit Church leader said they want to be “catalytic” for the ministry. The church dedicated one of its yearly “ServeRDU” projects to Unzicker’s apartment initiative. More than 300 volunteers served immigrants and refugees that week.
The one-on-one connections made at those events foster close relationships between Summit members and migrants. Many migrants feel unwelcome and isolated until they learn the language and find work, according to refugee aid agencies. One volunteer visits a specific family each week, helping them learn English and grow accustomed to life in America. She was also able to help the father secure a job.
“It has been great to see people in the homes of refugees,” Unzicker said.
Another volunteer decided to replicate the outreach in a nearby neighborhood.
Unzicker is excited to see the ministry multiply, and she hopes other churches and Christian groups will think creatively about how to reach the international people groups living in U.S. cities.
It’s doable, she said, even for a mom of three.
“It just takes relocating the everyday activities I already do with my kids, as simple as going to the park.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Seth Brown is content editor for the Biblical Recorder, news journal for North Carolina Baptists, and a member of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2018 Leadership Council. This article first appeared at ERLC.com. Used by permission.)