Intentional Quiet In The Midst Of Life’s Busyness

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My daughter, Tiffany, practicing yoga at Clingman’s Dome. Photo credit: Isaac Weatherly

I have learned some hard lessons over the past few years since becoming active in refugee ministry. I have a big family which I love. I have many refugee friends that I also love. I have a strong desire to “make things right” when I see unmet needs amongst those refugee friends. The hard lessons I am talking about are in accepting the fact that I can’t do it all. I knew this fact all along, yet it was easier to talk about keeping boundaries in place before I became involved in community activism. It was easier to huddle down and focus on “my” stuff before actually meeting needy people.

 

I have experienced several years of tension related to trying to meet everyone’s needs- my family’s needs and my friends’ needs. I have been on the verge of burn-out many times when trying to take on more than I could handle, but thankfully I have been given a peace about letting go. I now choose to live by my own convictions that quality care is better than quantity care. I want to be truly present–whether that’s for my husband, my children or friends, and yes, even for myself–and in order to do that, I resigned from being a harsh taskmaster to myself. I instead keep my eyes and heart open to what the Lord has just for me. I am not anybody’s “savior” and my limitations must be recognized.

Keeping open space on my calendar is crucial to me now. I am still pursuing my degree in Intercultural Studies. I am still homeschooling an 8th and 10th grader. I am still the co-leader of Woodlawn Refugee Ministry. These activities are both invigorating and exhausting. I can’t imagine removing any of these things from my life because I am not meant to. This is right where God has me in this season and I am embracing the fullness of 2018. With this fullness, I have given myself permission to say no to extra requests for help from refugees and instead find others who also have a heart to serve in this manner.

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A YWCA Advocate speaks at my church with Congolese women about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.

 

Along with permission to say no, I realize the importance of taking care of myself- physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. How do I do this? For one thing, getting a one-hour massage once or twice a month has been a priority of mine for the past 15+ years. I also see a chiropractor twice a month just to be on the proactive side of taking care of my body. I take time each morning to be alone in the quiet of the house. I spend this alone time praying, reading, meditating, reflecting. When I neglect to do this, I am grumpy and my brain feels like it’s in a fog. I go on walks several times a week on the Greenway bordering the Tennessee River. While walking, I sometimes listen to podcasts or music or, like right now, I am listening to The Count of Monte Cristo. Or sometimes I listen to nothing except the birds singing which reminds me to also give thanks to the Lord for the beauty in nature. Carving out time to be alone with Mike is also important to me. Staying up late to talk together before bed or going out to eat together on dates is something that I wouldn’t give up for the world.

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Milky Way at Clingman’s Dome near my house. Photo credit: Isaac Weatherly

 

Instead of Go, Go, Go and Do, Do, Do, my goal includes having at least one day per week where I don’t leave the house. Today is one of those days. My agenda? Writing. Reading. Wearing frumpy house clothes that I feel relaxed in. Enjoying several cups of jasmine green tea. Maybe even taking a nap. I’ve got the window open behind me and I feel the gentle breeze coming in. I hear my cat, Gilbert, purring beside me in his bed. Ahh, the stress is gone.

It is good to be still because God is in the center of my stillness.

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To The Woman At The Airport: I Am Sorry

miamiMy husband and I spent a beautiful 4 days in Miami this past week. He had business to do and I was tired of the gloominess of Knoxville’s winter. My parents offered to watch the kids so we could travel together. While the trip itself was enjoyable, it ended on a low note.

Waiting for our luggage to arrive took longer than normal for our small airport. While everyone stood around the baggage carousel, my husband Mike, our 20-year-old daughter (who came to pick us up) and I sat down in the back of the room to charge our phones. That is when I noticed in the midst of the crowd waiting for their luggage, a domestic situation was occurring.

The woman who had been pacing back and forth in front of us just a few minutes earlier was now standing next to her boyfriend by the baggage carousel. Apparently she wanted to walk around again, but he grabbed her by the arm and forced her in front of him. Now they were both facing the baggage carousel and he had both of his hands around her arms, holding her in place, speaking into her ear. I looked around and everyone seemed oblivious to his hostile behavior, pretending not to notice this tense scene.

abuseThey left the baggage area and walked over to the back of the room, only a few feet away from where we were sitting. I told Mike to keep an eye on this guy. The woman was looking straight ahead, not making eye contact with the boyfriend who was standing over her, very close to her face with both of his hands near her face pointing at her. At this point, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I walked over just in time to see his threatening eyes and hear his angry voice, “You have gone too far this time. You need to stop this behavior.” This was definitely not a mutual argument. While he was in mid-sentence, I blurted out, “You need to knock it off right now. Stop talking to her like that.” He looked at me with the same angry face and said sharply, “Nothing is going on here.” I said, “You’re wrong. I saw you over there grabbing her by the arms. You need to leave her alone.” My husband walked over and asked the man, “What’s going on over here?” I walked to the bathroom because I was too shaken to stand there any longer.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that the man was again standing near the baggage carousel and the woman was leaning against the wall near where we were. Mike said that he had notified the police of the situation. The policeman was now standing another few feet away from us.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman. Here she was only a few feet away from me at the airport, waiting. Waiting for what? Luggage? A beating at the end of the day? I hoped I hadn’t placed her in an even worse predicament by getting in the middle of the altercation. I walked over to her and said, “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, but I saw the way he was handling you earlier.” She said, “There’s no need to apologize. You put yourself in harm’s way to help me.” I told her that I had previously been involved in a threatening relationship and that my mom had worked at a women’s domestic violence shelter for 8 years, so I am aware of the signs of abuse. I told her if this is how he’s treating her in public, what happens in private? She said sorry that he was being aggressive right now. I said that no man should ever be aggressive to a woman. I offered for us to follow her to the car at a distance to make sure she was safe, but she declined.

Mike got our bags and as we were leaving, I had enough time to hand her my refugee ministry card with my phone number, email address and blog info. I made sure to hand it to her when her boyfriend wasn’t looking. She looked hesitant, looking from the card over to him several times before taking it quickly. I wish there was more I could do, but I did all that I could do. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since then. That was 2 days ago.

To the woman at the airport: I have no idea what happened the night that led up to that altercation. Maybe you had been in a fight with your boyfriend. Maybe you think you’re the one to blame for him getting angry. Maybe you even said some mean things to him to get him in such a bad mood. But I want to tell you that none of those things matter. Because the truth is that there is no excuse for a man to speak to a woman in that way, to look at a woman with a look of ferocious anger, to manhandle her and grab her by the arms. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have done nothing wrong and you should not blame yourself for his actions. You are worth so much more. I know that when God sees you, He sees a woman who deserves to be cherished, loved, adored, protected.

This blog post title says that I am sorry. Why? I am sorry that in the midst of the large crowd of people at the baggage carousel, nobody stood up to defend you from your threatening boyfriend. Everyone looked the other way. I am ashamed to say it took me as long as it did, long enough for you to walk to the back of the airport near where I was sitting before I intervened.

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I am not sure which country you are originally from, but here in America, women have rights. You have the right to live a life of dignity. Fear should never be a part of any relationship. You should not have to worry about public humiliation and episodes of shaming. Emotional abuse is still abuse. You have the right to know that when you don’t feel confident enough to voice your fears, then others will come alongside you and help you find the resources you need to overcome an abusive relationship. I saw that you had no voice that night. That is why I spoke up.

My offer is still open. If you need help, you have my number. May God keep you safe.

 

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Refugee Realities: Inner City Woes

Last month, I learned of an alarming statistic about Atlanta’s inner city youth: 46% of inner city residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is reported that the violence and instability of inner city life is the culprit behind such a high rate of PTSD. BBC’s North American correspondent, Aleem Maqbool, who covered the story, said levels of PTSD in America’s inner cities are twice as high as American soldiers returning from war and are comparable to refugee populations around the world.

This particular finding– of inner city PTSD being comparable to refugee populations– stirred within me feelings of anguish; many of my refugee friends have been resettled in crime-ridden areas of Knoxville. What is being created with this unfortunate resettlement is a tense conglomeration of 2 different types of PTSD: that of America’s inner cities and that of African refugee populations.

I have seen the filth inside the corridor of an inner city apartment, smelled the stench of urine and drugs,  documented cockroach infestations so rampant that cockroaches freely scurried on a crawling infant.

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This pic was sent to me by a refugee friend at his apartment complex. I asked, “Which room is this in?” The answer: “It is like this in every room.”

On one particular visit to pick up a refugee, I was charged at by a woman yelling at me, arms flailing, eyes wild with rage, and a man following close at her side. Thankfully I had not yet gotten out of my car and I had time to drive away quickly.

At this residence in East Knoxville, two of my refugee friends were robbed at gunpoint last month (Dec. 2017). One of them had his wallet stolen, the other chased the gunman until the gunman turned around and pointed the gun at him. An American would say, “Why in the world did he chase after the gunman?!” But to a refugee, they are oftentimes still operating with the mindset from their home country: that they need to take care of their own problems, that authority figures can do nothing to help. The police were called about this incident, but it was in my friend’s natural instincts to attempt to retrieve the wallet himself.

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Within one mile of this apartment complex, shootings are a common occurrence. In this WATE news story,  I read about how one person was shot during an armed robbery which took place at the exact same address where my African friends were robbed last month, where I was charged at by a drug-crazed woman, where cockroaches thrive, where Congolese refugee children innocently play on the streets.

Refugees who are placed in unsafe apartment complexes are not initially told about the seriousness of the dangers that surround them. They learn through other refugees in the neighborhood that it is not safe for their children to play outside. Symptoms of PTSD from their home country are only exasperated when they are forced to learn creative ways of coping in this foreign war zone which is now their new home.

Last year when I surveyed 15 different Congolese at this ghetto apartment, their biggest plea was to find a safe place to live. The notes I took relayed their collective concern related to their new home: Drugs. Prostitution. Thieves. Unsafe. Dangerous. Very dirty. Can’t sleep at night. Have to stay inside. Gunshots. Broken things inside the apartment.

My heart aches for America’s children who have been raised in the inner cities. However, there is this sense of utter desperation for resettled immigrants who must somehow adapt to a new culture, that of one we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. If it takes a miracle for an American to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty, how much more so is it for a non-English-speaking, PTSD-scarred refugee to do so!

If you are a person who believes in America’s refugee resettlement program, I plead with you to actively advocate for refugees in your community. Consider voicing your concerns in order to improve resettlement conditions.

give us your tiredI apologize for not giving a glowing report about refugee resettlement. If you would like a glowing report of success stories, you can find those on the internet or on the nightly news. If you would like the real nitty-gritty, I suggest that you visit refugee populations living in America’s inner cities. I also suggest that, if you do so, please consider carrying pepper spray and don’t go alone or at night.

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Good-bye 2017, Happy New Year! Family and refugee ministry update

Once again, another year comes to a close. I look back on 2017 and realize that a lot has happened over this past year. Namely, my husband, Mike, started a new profession after 25 years in the food service industry. He now works for GatorStep, a marine non-skid company that my brother-in-law started a few years ago that has really taken off. A new shop was opened here in Knoxville, so my husband is managing the East Coast GatorStep.

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Mike, on the right, at a boat show in Tampa, Florida

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At the end of July, my parents and I traveled to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to see our good friend, Parwiz, graduate from Army boot camp. Parwiz came to the United States 4 years ago and has accomplished so much in this short time period: working full-time, attending college, bought a home, became an American citizen and started his own construction company! 

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Back to school for these excited Congolese children (first time to school for many of them!). As you know, my church has grown considerably with the arrival of Congolese refugees to Knoxville. I am thankful that the children’s ministry director and several helpers coordinated to bring 22 children to Walmart to buy new backpacks and other school supplies!

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Here is my daughter, Josie, helping a cute little Iraqi girl with her dinner. We were invited to the First birthday party of Narjis whose mother I was with last year when she gave birth. Such a fun party and we especially loved the Middle Eastern feast!

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ESL classes continue at church. On this Sunday, my daughter Scarlet was helping teach about the colors.  I had fun teaching the body parts by singing the children’s song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

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Woodlawn Refugee Ministry hosted a 3-week class on finances. We learned about the difference between a want and a need, how to budget wisely, how to save money on expenses, among other topics.

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My daughter, Kaylie, continues to amaze me with her artistic skills. Here are some sketches she has done with pencil.

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Kaylie with her boyfriend, Alex, and her “baby”, Jack, a Siberian Husky/Lab mix.

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In October, we visited Max Patch on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Max Patch boasts a 360-degree view of the Appalachian Mountains including the Blue Ridge and the Smokies. The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the grassy bald. Here we are with Isaac, Lillia and her friend, Faith.

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Josie and Scarlet with their friend, Danielle. The hike was worth the view!

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Mike and I made it to the top. 4,629 feet elevation!

I thank the Lord for everything He has blessed me with. Family, friends, a warm house, food on the table, a country that people all over the world are still dying to come to. I pray that I will keep my thoughts pure, my goals simple, my eyes on Jesus.

I end this blog with a prayer written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 1400’s:

Grant me, most dear and loving Jesus, to rest in you above created things; above health and beauty, above all glory and honor; above all power and dignity, above all knowledge and skill; above all fame and praise, above all sweetness and consolation; above all hope and promise, above all merit and desire; above all gifts and favors that you can bestow and shower upon us; above all joy and jubilation that the mind can conceive and know; above angels and archangels and all the hosts of Heaven; above all things visible and invisible; and above everything that is not yourself, O my God.

O Lord, my God, you transcend all things.  You alone are most high, most mighty, most sufficient and complete, most sweet and comforting.  You alone are most full of beauty and glory, in whom all good things in their perfection exist, both now and ever have been, and ever will be.  All, therefore, is too small and unsatisfying that you can give me beside yourself, or that you can reveal and promise me of yourself unless I can see and fully possess you.  For my heart cannot rest nor be wholly content until it rests in you, rising above all your gifts and creatures.

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Summer Fun on St. George Island

I usually write about refugee ministry and activities I am involved with because I want to bring awareness to my community (and beyond) of the continued needs of refugees once they are resettled. But today, I would like to give you a peek into my family’s vacation that we took over the 4th of July week!

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Here’s my family. 6 of my 7 kids. Andrew couldn’t come because he had National Guard duties.

 

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There were 26 family members from 3 different states from Mike’s side of the family that met at St. George Island, Florida. Here are Mike’s parents with all of their grandkids except Andrew. The cousins had a blast reconnecting!

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My mom was also able to join us! Here we are with my sister-in-law, Kristen.

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We rented 3 different beach houses and spent the week having lots of fun together. Swimming, building sand castles and finding sea shells were our #1 activities.

 

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Scarlet with her grandpa and cousin, Alyssa. She did catch 2 small fish this day.

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We drove to Apalachicola on my birthday to browse at the stores and grab a bite to eat. This quickly-moving storm was heading our way just as we were leaving town. Lots of lightning and high winds while going across the bridge!

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The best part of the trip was getting to spend quality time with Mike.

Now we’re home and back into the regular swing of life. This past week found me at the dentist office with Scarlet (again) and visiting many Iraqi friends that I haven’t gotten to see in a few months.

I am excited for some major events occurring over the next 2 weeks: a Congolese mother and daughter getting to be reunited after 9 years apart (7 of those years not knowing whether the other was alive or dead) and of traveling with my parents to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri to witness an Afghan friend graduate Army boot camp and be sworn in as an American citizen. Be on the lookout for a blog post highlighting these life-changing events!

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What Can I Do To Help Refugees?

I often receive the question, “What can I do to help refugees?” Here are a few things to help you get started in refugee ministry.

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Refugees from DR Congo enjoy lunch at the Weatherly house one Sunday after church. Photo courtesy of Saul Young, Knoxville News Sentinel.

  • “Sponsor” a single mother by weekly visits which could include sharing meals together, grocery shopping, reading to her children, going to the $2 movie theater, etc. Basically forming a friendship.
  • Weekly tutoring in English. If you can speak English, you can teach English. There are so many free resources online to help in this process. Check out: Jubilee ESL Manual and Minnesota Literacy Council.
  • Show refugees how to use the library. Take them on a weekly visit to the library and if there are preschool children involved, try to have the visits be scheduled around the same time that the library has the Story and Craft Time.
  • Invite a refugee family into your home for a meal. Make this a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly tradition.
  • Help a refugee with job or housing applications. When they are ready to move into better housing, help them move.
  • Include a refugee in your family holiday festivities.
  • If you have a garden, share in the bounty. Invite a refugee over to see your garden and teach them the names of the vegetables in English.
  • Include a refugee in your day-to-day activities. A day swimming at the lake? Going to the Farmer’s Market? Hiking in the mountains? These are perfect times to introduce refugees to their new city/state.
  • Help a refugee with budgeting skills: how to grocery shop, how to stretch their limited income.
  • Help them study for the Driver License test. When they have their permit, spend time with them as they practice driving. Having a driver’s license opens up a whole new world of opportunities!

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  • Collect gently-used in-season clothing, kitchen items and children’s books to distribute either directly to refugees in need or to a clothing closet such as Woodlawn Refugee Ministry or a nonprofit that supports refugees.
  • Purchase a large map of the United States (I find poster-sized one’s at Dollar Tree) and hang it in the home of a refugee. Show them the states and capitals. Teach them North, South, East and West. Help them become acquainted with their new country.
  • Teach a refugee about U.S. history, government and Civics including the Bill of Rights.
  • A friend of mine started a bicycle ministry. He takes donated bikes that need repairing, makes the necessary repairs and then distributes the bikes to refugee children.
  • Do you have any special giftings? I’m sure there is something you can contribute that is special to you. If you are an artist, give art lessons to a child. If you can play a musical instrument, you can teach the basics to a refugee. These are activities that will build friendships while also being therapeutic.
  • If you are a massage therapist or chiropractor, offer your services pro bono. 
  • If you are a professional in another field, consider whether your services could be used to assist a refugee, possibly by even hiring a refugee or offering an internship.
  • The possibilities are endless!
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“Your Life Matters To Me”

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This is the Ugandan refugee camp where many Congolese refugees who are attending my church lived for over a decade. There are approximately 25,000 refugees who call this place “home.”

My last post was written about 6 weeks ago. In it, I stated that there were 20 Congolese refugees attending my church. The following week, that number grew to 30. Then the next week, 40. Now, there are over 50 refugees attending my church. The numbers have grown tremendously, but our infant ministry, Woodlawn Refugee Ministry, had not. We still had the same base of a few dedicated volunteers who were assisting with ESL and the clothing closet. With the growth has come the urgency for additional volunteers in the children’s ministry. We also do not have a bus that is large enough to fit all of the refugees, so that has proven to be quite a strain on Sunday mornings, organizing the church van, small bus and additional 2 or 3 volunteers with their own vehicles to pick up refugees. There is more awareness at church of the vast need, but more assistance is still needed.

All of these growing pains are a good thing. I am reminded that a community is being built. Investments in lives are being made. While there is tremendous work in this stage of cultural adjustment for refugees, I am thankful they have new friends who can help them along the way.

I have always believed that at the heart of service to refugees is the importance of building relationships, not merely providing services. I touched briefly on this in my book, “Refugee Resettlement: On The Frontlines“. I want to know a person, to hear their story, for them to know they matter. This was easier when I had a smaller base of refugee friends. Now that the numbers have really taken off at church, I am afraid of losing that personal touch. It was an emotionally draining night a few weeks ago when our refugee ministry team discovered 10 new refugees who did not have any food in their apartment. How could this have gotten overlooked? If each refugee family has an American family or even a small group to befriend them, I doubt that this type of oversight would ever happen.

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A morning at the DMV applying for ID’s. My 14-year-old son needed a State ID to open a bank account. Samuel needed a State ID to apply for a job.

I can’t build relationships with every single refugee. That is not what I have been called to do. My own husband, 7 children and 2 grandchildren are my #1 priority. While I do incorporate ministry into my whole life as a wife and mother, I have to put boundaries in place to protect the family that God has blessed me with. That is why I am praying for more people of action to step up to the plate and ditch the craziness of “normal” life in exchange for the richness of something deeper than what they have known.

OK, so it doesn’t have to be refugee ministry. I understand that. I applaud my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are sacrificing their lives overseas on the mission field, or in their own cities ministering with the homeless, or to the battered woman, or to the children in foster care. I think of you often and pray for you. May the younger generation of America cast off selfishness and instead pick up their crosses and choose the harder path. That is my hope for the refugees I meet; I hope that Christians will say to the struggling single mother with 3 children, “Your life matters to me because your life matters to Christ.”

IMG_8824On Friday, I will be picking up one of these single mothers and her children so they can spend the day at my house with my children and me. We will take them to play at the park and on their first outing of ice cream. Where will this mother be next month? Who will befriend her– and all the other women, children, families– who have come to my city and your city? Their desire is not only to say, “America is my home”, but to know and feel it in their bones, that this new country truly is the blessing they were hoping it would be.

So, my fellow brothers and sisters– if you are a reader that calls yourself a Christian– I would like to ask if you could prayerfully consider making a few minor adjustments in your life in order to make a world of difference for your new neighbor? Let us love our neighbor as ourselves. If they are hungry, let us feed them. If they are lonely, let us visit them. If they are weeping because of lost family members left behind, we will weep with them in empathy. Let our love be not merely with word and tongue, but with action and in truth (1 John 3:18).

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Woodlawn Refugee Ministry

church-eslLast year at this time, I went to church each Sunday and instead of going into my designated Sunday school class, I sat at a small, glass table near the coffee area with one Burundian refugee, Benjamin. He wanted to come to church, but his English was not the greatest, so we began reading from a 2nd grade picture Bible. He would read, I would correct pronunciation or explain vocabulary. A month later, a Congolese woman joined us. Then one of the long-time church members who walked over to get coffee noticed us sitting there reading, so he decided to join us. Over the months, word has spread, our ESL group has grown and we had to move out of that little coffee foyer to a large classroom.

 

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A group of friends from church realized that there were many refugees in Knoxville who are slipping through the cracks, who need extra help in being able to get on their feet and on the right path to self-sufficiency. We formed a team and began meeting to talk and pray about how the Lord would use us to minister to these newcomers. Thus began Woodlawn Refugee Ministry.

One of the goals of Woodlawn Refugee Ministry is to partner with refugees in their journey to self-sufficiency. Refugees need assistance in being able to figure out life in the U.S. They don’t want a handout and that’s not what we want to give. They need opportunities to create a thriving, new life in their new country. Learning English and having a Driver License are two huge steps in reaching independence.

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Rogers had lived in a Ugandan refugee camp for over a dozen years, dreaming of a better life for his family, before moving to Knoxville. After being in the US only 4 months and working hard, Rogers had saved enough money to buy a van! The joy to be able to personally drive his wife and 4 children to church rather than relying on the church bus is a feeling of freedom that is indescribable. It is exciting for all of us to be a part of seeing his dreams come true.

There are now about 20 African refugees attending our church, many of them children. There is a clothing closet where refugees can pick out a winter coat or clothes if they are in need. We have a bus that will pick up refugees who do not have transportation. But these things- the clothing closet and bus transportation- are merely services that we see on the 16387975_10212167294237990_1152672948385142189_noutside. The heart of what we are doing goes much deeper than a service. Relationships. Community. Trust. The building of new friendships with refugees is not attainable in merely providing services. Living life together in authentic community is the cornerstone. We want to live by the example given to us in the early church where the believers met together to fellowship with one another, instruct one another, share meals together and look out for the needs of one another. We all have something to learn from one another. The refugees we meet are not “acts of charity” we do to feel good; they are our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our family.

You don’t have to be a part of my church in order to make a difference in the life of a refugee. If you have the time and willingness to invest in a friendship with someone from a different culture, I would love to talk with you about how you can be involved in refugee ministry.

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So Many Needs, So Many Blessings

The past 2 months have been filled with an extraordinary amount of life.

Here’s a picture blog of my life since October:

October 2016

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In October, Mike and I got to fly to Oregon to visit my sister, her husband, my niece and nephews, and my aunts and uncles.

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My Oregon family. I miss them so much!

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Mike and I rarely go on extended trips alone together. On this day, we drove along Highway 1 on the Oregon Coast. It was so beautiful. We were the only one’s in the restaurant because a huge storm was forecast. We spent 2 hours in this restaurant, watching sea otters and dolphins swim by the window. Great memories.

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After Oregon, I traveled to Fort Jackson, South Carolina with my daughters Tiffany and Lillia. We got to see Tiffany’s husband, Thomas, graduate from Basic Training with the National Guard. Congratulations, Thomas!

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Later in October, we went to a corn maze and pumpkin patch with the grandkids, Alonzo and Celine. Because of the drought, there wasn’t much of a corn maze. 😦

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Trunk or Treating with friends at different churches in Knoxville

November 2016

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November found me busy with friends organizing a refugee baby shower. Here are some of the donated items we delivered to a few different families.

iraqifeast

It’s an impossibility to visit an Iraqi friend without being overwhelmed by their hospitality.

angel

I got to meet this cute little bundle on the day she was born. Angel was born on November 7, only 15 minutes after arriving at the hospital via ambulance!

angel_family

Here is baby Angel with the rest of her family and my daughter, Scarlet. I am overjoyed that this new little baby will never know life inside of a refugee camp. These friends of mine are no longer refugees, so we don’t refer to them as refugees. They are Congolese friends starting a new, abundant life in Knoxville, Tennessee.

painting

Life still goes on at home even amidst the busyness of refugee ministry. Here, Mike is painting our basement. It previously had dark wood paneling. Even with the windows to bring in natural light, we wanted our basement to have a more updated look.

plants

A bright basement with the warm light of the morning sunshine greeted me the day after we finished painting. Even from the top of the stairs, it looks much brighter.

isaac

When Isaac needs a haircut, we ask my oldest son, Andrew. Being in the Navy for 4 years and now in the National Guard Reserves, he’s had tons of experience in giving buzz cuts. My 82-year-old great Uncle Bill was watching and decided he wanted to get buzzed, too!

unclebill

Here’s Uncle Bill getting a military buzz cut! His hair was so thin on the top beforehand. The few long wisps of hair would not stay put when he left the house, so he said he was taking the plunge and cutting it all off.

December 2016

narjis1

I was honored to be able to witness the birth of this sweet Iraqi baby girl on December 1. It was an amazing scene with 2 Iraqi moms and another American friend helping the mother during labor and delivery. This little girl is an American citizen. She will never know the fear of living in a war zone. Praise the Lord for new life!

christmastree

Merry Christmas! It’s already time to decorate the house and put up Christmas lights outside. We’re busy with baking Christmas cookies, wrapping presents and attending Christmas concerts at the girls’ schools.

narjis2

Another birth! This Iraqi baby was born December 13 via c-section. I considered it a privilege to accompany the mother to her doctor appointments throughout the past few months. I was able to see on the ultrasound how this little girl was growing. On several occasions while arriving at the office, the nurses mistook me for being the mother’s interpreter. They finally figured out I don’t speak Arabic and so stopped asking me to interpret! We used a phone interpreter service to be able to communicate with the doctor. Even though the mother is not fluent in English, she knows enough to have basic conversations with me. And I’ve learned a few Arabic words as well. Still, I have learned a universal truth: Friendship is possible even when words are absent.

church

I love my church family. The welcoming spirit. Our doors are open to you. All colors, countries, income brackets, those unsure of their faith or sexuality. We live and grow and learn together. As Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second commandment is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) This is what I am trying- in my humanness- to live out day by day.

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Yearning For Community

*I am going to be posting some excerpts from my book in the next few blog posts for those of you who have not yet read it.*

A yearning for community fills many refugee’s hearts with longing for a home to which they can never return. According to a newly-arrived Syrian refugee in Maryland, one of the first things he noticed was the silence: “Where are the people? Are they staying in their houses?”

An Afghan refugee to Chicago ponders, “How can I possibly feel unhappy sometimes? I have no right to sorrow. And yet at times I find I can’t enjoy what I have. I come home through empty streets to our quiet little apartment, to my mother, who sits in her chair, rocking relentlessly hour after hour, lost in her thoughts, and I start to feel so lonely. I eat something, and the food seems to have no flavor. I worry that I’ve lost the capacity for excitement that I used to have in such abundance as a little girl, living in Afghanistan with my family.”

My family was given a window into the lives of a Burundian family: elderly parents, a young husband and wife and their 4-year-old son. I picked them up at their apartment less than 1 week after their arrival in the United States. They still needed help in understanding how to buckle their seat belts. On the drive to my home, I could see their wide eyes in the rearview mirror as they took in their surroundings: an Interstate system with overpasses, beautiful brick churches, the Tennessee River, unfamiliar trees. It was as if I was experiencing these things for the first time, knowing that they had only been accustomed to life in a refugee camp for a dozen years and before that, similar primitive conditions.

yvette

My 6-year-old daughter with 2 of our Burundian friends

Upon entering our house, they were greeted by our curious Siberian Husky, ‘Juno’. We learned they had an intense fear of dogs (which is shared by many refugees). Americans keep dogs as pets. Indeed, many dogs are considered to be family members. But to refugees living in African camps, dogs are competitors for food. They come to attack and steal. Throughout the night of our visit with the Burundian family, we kept Juno downstairs, but the 4-year-old son kept opening the door, trying to take a peek at this “wild animal” in our basement, occasionally yelling, “Go away, dog” in Kirundi.

Also on this night, they got to experience a delicacy they had never heard of: ice cream. As we brought bowls of ice cream to the table, my husband attempted to mentally prepare them by explaining that this food was very cold and they needed to eat it slowly. When the elderly father took his first bite, his eyes lit up and his whole countenance changed. With a look of awe on his face, he announced in Kirundi: “This is the best food in the world.”

burundian-refugees

While sitting around the dining table, we found a YouTube video on my husband’s iPad of the camp in Tanzania they had lived in for 14 years. Their understanding of technology was so elementary that they thought our family had visited the camp to film. On this video, we watched the anguished interviews, gaining a deeper understanding of the traumas these people had been through. They pointed with excitement and mentioned the names of their friends on this video they had left behind, wondering where they may be now. Watching this video together, it was a bridge to help connect a middle class American family with a persecuted African family. While they were overjoyed to begin a new life here in the United States, I could feel a sense of loss over what they had left behind in the refugee camp: community.

The United States is an extreme example of an individualistic nation, one in which its citizens are focused on self, looking out for #1 and pursuing personal achievement. Even in church settings, we focus on our own personal calling. There are some low-income communities in the United States that are not as individualistic. On the streets of the poor, we see neighbors hanging out on front porches, playing card games or grilling. Children have freedom to play in the streets and visit with neighbor friends freely. This is the vibrant, bustling life from which the refugees have come and for which they yearn.

refugees-outside

One of my goals in befriending these new neighbors is to help fill the void of a deep wound, the wound of permanent loss of their homeland and culture. In its place, they can create a sense of comfort and belonging with their new community. Refugees cannot do this alone. They need Americans who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones of individualism and help bridge the gap for these newcomers.  The question is: Are we willing to make the sacrifice? Do we have time for community?

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