Ibrahim was clearly puzzled by the hospitality of the American Christians who had shown him such love and care during his short time in the United States.
Photo courtesy of Refuge Ministry
Nepali refugee women have found a place of economic empowerment through Refuge Louisville’s MAYA ministry in which they fashion jewelry once a week.
“Why do you treat us better than our own people?” Ibrahim asked during a Thanksgiving meal last year hosted by Refuge Louisville, a ministry that equips local churches to minister to refugees.
To anyone who has heard Ibrahim’s life story, the question made sense. Injured by a missile, he had been evacuated to a hospital in Jordan and pressed into a refugee camp, according to the Refuge blog.
“We weren’t looking to the future – we were just alive,” Ibrahim said.
But at Refuge Louisville, he found a caring community of Christians who helped to welcome him into life in the United States.
Since last October, Refuge has worked with local churches from six denominations to mobilize more than 500 volunteers to support immigrants like Ibrahim. Emerging from the ministry of a Southern Baptist church plant five years ago, Refuge “exists to empower local churches to serve refugees and marginalized people in Louisville and beyond,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
Many of the refugees come from places where it’s tough for missionaries enter.
“We’ve all been trying to get into the 10/40 window forever,” John Barnett, executive director at Refuge Louisville, said of the global regions where masses are unreached by the gospel. “What if God is sending the 10/40 window to us? Are we ready? That’s what we’re equipping the church to be prepared for.”
Photo by Roger S. Oldham
Two refugee women from Myanmar prepare their part of a four-acre garden spot on land provided by Antioch Church in Louisville, Ky. The church partners with the city to prepare the soil for multiple family groups to cultivate individual gardens each spring and summer.
Kentucky resettles twice the number of refugees per capita as the national average, according to a December 2016 Pew Report. It also ranks in the top 10 among all states in resettled refugees per capita. In 2015, 61 percent the refugees arriving in Kentucky resettled in Louisville. Refuge Louisville says the city has refugees representing 120 nationalities and who speak more than 100 different languages.
Refuge is located in the heart of an area with the three largest apartment complexes housing refugees in Louisville. Antioch Church, founded by Todd Robertson, launched in the basement of one of the buildings in 2010. Though the church eventually moved, they realized it would be an ideal location to reach into the city’s growing refugee population.
“The idea for us was always – the key to reaching the refugee community was the church,” Robertson said. “We saw that building as a place that could be an incubator for new church plants, whether that be in what we were trying to do as a multi-ethnic congregation or whether it was through mono-ethnic, language-focused churches.” Robertson recently transitioned from Antioch to serve as director of missions for the Louisville Regional Baptist Association.
Barnett, a former 12-year missionary with the International Mission Board, describes Refuge Louisville as “intra-church” rather than para-church because the local church leads the effort.
“Everything we do comes out of the local church as an avenue to feed back into the local church,” Barnett said. “That’s why I call us intra-church. … Normally a para-church would say no matter whether the local church gets involved, we’re going to continue the mission. The church planter in me, the local church guy in me, says I’d rather not exist than do that.”
Photo by Roger S. Oldham
Sharing a focus on ministering to refugees arriving in Kentucky are John Barnett, left, executive director at Refuge Louisville; Thomas Maijamaa, center, pastor of Evangelical Church Winning All; and Todd Robertson, director of missions for Louisville Regional Baptist Association.
Three major efforts are the primary focus of what Refuge Louisville now does.
First, they mobilize local church small groups of at least six people to serve as welcome teams for new refugees in a joint effort with area resettlement agencies. The teams pick up the refugees at the airport, help set up their new apartments and become a helpful resource and caring support during the refugee family’s early days in the city. At the end of the three-month commitment, the groups throw a “milestone party” to celebrate the family’s completion of a quarter of a year in the U.S.
“We’re meeting a huge need for these resettlement agencies [by helping with the resettlement process]. They are overrun,” Barnett said.
Second, Refuge matches partnering church members with refugees who have specific needs such as English classes, computer instruction, job search assistance and in-home tutoring. When Refuge discovers a need, Barnett said, they go to the churches to check for volunteers.
“We never want to be a top-down organization,” he said. “We want to serve from the bottom up. We want to help people discover their gifts. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had someone come for a few minutes and then they realize God wants them to use their gifts to minister to refugees.”
Third, Refuge provides churches with opportunities to immerse future church leaders and cross-cultural workers in an international context. In a yearlong immersion program, leaders are encouraged to move into a refugee community to engage refugees with gospel-focused relationships, be trained in cross-cultural ministry, deepen their relationship with God and learn to work in a team setting.
“We want people to be equipped to serve in an international setting without being intimidated by language or cultural differences,” Barnett said. “As they go through [the program] for a year, we’re teaching them how to do the highest-value activities, to use their natural gifts.”
Through the immersion, he noted, leaders get opportunities to share the gospel across varying cultures – a skill that the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board will want to see if they apply for missionary service.
As churches engage with refugees through Refuge Louisville, Barnett hopes they will eventually adopt communities as a whole and provide long-term initiatives and strategies to reach the refugees. Local churches have started two Arabic and one Afghan Bible study through Refuge.
“Local churches are getting excited,” Barnett said. “For many of these church members it’s the first time they’ve been on mission. They’re saying, ‘I never thought I’d share the gospel cross-culturally. I never thought I’d welcome a Syrian into my home. I never thought I’d go to a home of a Syrian. And I’d never really thought I would love to do it because God is using me.’”
For more information about Refuge Louisville, visit refugelouisville.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry is a writer based in Evansville, Ind. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE, sbclife.net, journal of the SBC Executive Committee.)