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Refugee Testimonies Part IV: The Good in Letting Go

December 21, 2017

Each Sunday of Advent we are sharing a testimony from one of our Good Neighbor team members, as we prepare to form new teams as part of our Advent Gift. Good Neighbor teams partner with World Relief to provide logistical support and friendship for local Refugee families during the first few months of their transition to the United States. I spoke with Amy about her first experience with the family from Burundi:

“We went to pick the Burundi family up from the airport last year and we brought two big vans, one for people and one for their luggage... since this is a family of four and they’re moving here, right? So there will be six of us in the van and four of them. So we go to pick them up and both parents had one small carry on and both kids had one tiny backpack. And those were their worldly belongings.

Their half brother was with us so he was able to translate. One person asked them, “What was it like being in the refugee camp?” Because they’d been in the camp for over ten years, like most refugees are, for a very long time. Less than 1% get resettled. To be a refugee is really hard to prove; you have to go through a lot of hoops to be designated as a refugee, so it’s people who really had to flee their country for their lives and can’t go back for the same reason.

He said one of the things was it was hot, so hot that you couldn’t get water during the day. You had to walk really far, so the men would get up in the middle of the night to get the water for the next.

And so when we went to their apartment, they went in the bathroom and all of them had their hands under the running water for five minutes. Patricia, the mother laid down on every bed.

Seeing her response was so amazing I will never ever forget it. They have always been so thankful and so full of life, I just can’t imagine how shocking that would be to have so much change. But Patricia throws herself into everything, like learning English. When you compare what we consider needs and what they consider needs, it just reorients your idea of what are actually needs.”

Amy has been a Good Neighbor team leader for two years and has coordinated the program this year as they have expanded to two teams, some remaining with the original family from Burundi and others forming a new team to support a family from Eritrea, a country that used to be part of Ethiopia.

Amy shares one of the most rewarding parts of volunteering is learning to navigate letting go of your own fear and look past your own culture in interactions with the family, “I think as Americans, people are afraid to meet new people, even other Americans, and so when they meet people from others countries, they are intimidated by that, and do nothing. But I think as Christians we need to just get over ourselves and not worry about ourselves so much. You have to think about the other person, how they feel, not how they make you feel,” she laughs.

One way the team allows members to get over themselves is by requiring communication and coordination of support. Amy used to work with a refugee family independently, which she shares was overwhelming and required saying “no” more often than she wanted to. A team allows you to fill in the gaps together, but being a team member is a commitment, “If you just want to do something every once in a blue moon you can do that through World Relief, but if you’re on a Good Neighbor team you’re committed to communicating and being part of a team and not just doing your own thing every once in awhile.”

Another way Amy and her husband Grant are learning to “get over themselves” is by towing the line between holding onto their culture too tightly and letting it go completely. This Thanksgiving, they invited the Eritrean family over for dinner, but since they were Muslim, served meat that was Halal and didn’t violate any cleanliness laws. “Otherwise I tried to make it a normal thanksgiving!” At one point, the Eritrean family even asked to look at a copy of their Bible. By being respectful of their culture, Amy and Grant were able to address cultural differences in a way that invited conversation. Amy jokes that she was prepared for such interactions by her experience as a missionary in Germany, but perhaps even more thoroughly by the culture shock of moving to Southeast Tennessee, “I wouldn’t say that [this ministry] was what I would have picked, I feel like God picked for me.”

This interview has been shortened for clarity. 

Refugee Team Testimonies Part III: The Politics of the Kingdom

December 17, 2017

Each Sunday of Advent we are sharing a testimony from one of our Good Neighbor team members, as we prepare to form new teams as part of our Advent Gift. Good Neighbor teams partner with World Relief to provide logistical support and friendship for local Refugee families during the first few months of their transition to the United States. Grant shares a snapshot of his experience below.

I have been involved with a Good Neighbor Team at Rez since August of 2016. But my heart is not naturally drawn to do this kind of volunteer work. I considered the plight of immigrants more of a political issue, not a primary Kingdom focus. 
My wife Amy got me thinking about the issue by encouraging  me to read Richard Stearns’ "The Hole in the Gospel". Through this book and study of Scripture, I found clear teaching calling the people of God to care for the “sojourner.” In the Old Testament, God called the Israelites to love those people who were not native-born, but who wanted to be part of the covenant. The sojourners were not to be neglected, ignored, or overlooked because of their foreign origins. God judged those Israelites who did this (cf. Mal. 3:5). In the New Testament, we are called to welcome the stranger, whether they have pledged allegiance to the covenant or not. Jesus gives us a higher calling…in welcoming the stranger we welcome our Lord himself (cf. Matt 25:31-40).
Basically, I wanted to and needed to grow in my compassion for the downtrodden. They were a statistic and news item, not something that touched me personally. When it became clear that my wife needed support for her leadership role on the Good Neighbor Team, I took a step of faith and obedience, joined the team, and just got involved. In short, my wife Amy’s influence was paramount toward my thinking differently about this issue and joining the team.
The experience has been much better than I expected. This ministry provides a personal, relational connection between refugees and American citizens who are members of the local community. While I technically serve as an ESL tutor, lately, I have been helping the husband of the family whom we serve by assisting him in the process of getting his driver’s license. I have let him practice driving my car, escorted him to the Illinois Drivers Services Department, and was his English language advocate as he registered to take his driving test. He did not pass the test his first time, so we will need to return in the near future. Once we get some registration documents taken care of we will go back to the office take the driving test one more time.
But this is not just a service that I provide as a volunteer. God has blessed me with a friendship with the family from another part of the world whose language I don’t speak and whose culture I don’t know, but about which I am learning.
Of course there have been awkward moments when I did not know what was going on and wondered if I should stay or leave when I had dropped by for a visit. It has been good for me to be out of my comfort zone, however. My advice for anyone looking to join a team is the following: don’t be afraid to step into the unknown dynamics of a new cultural experience. You will grow through this process and will be blessed with new friends from another part of the globe. Even when I officially am no longer a member (as it is initially an eight-month commitment) I’m going to stay connected relationally with our refugee family. They are my friends!