Last 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 together. 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 back 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.
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.
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 outside. 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.