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.
“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 more of his story, the question made sense. Ibrahim had been injured by a missile, evacuated to an unfriendly Jordanian hospital, and pressed into a refugee camp, according to the Refuge blog.
“We weren’t looking to the future—we were just alive,” he said.
But at Refuge, Ibrahim found a caring community of Christians who helped to welcome him into life in the United States.
Since last October, Refuge has helped local churches from six denominations mobilize more than five hundred volunteers to support immigrants like Ibrahim. Refuge Louisville, which emerged about five years ago out of the ministry of a Southern Baptist church plant, “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 to whom churches minister through the Refuge come from places where it’s tough to get missionaries into.
“We’ve all been trying to get into the 10/40 window forever,” said John Barnett, executive director at Refuge Louisville and a former twelve-year veteran missionary with the International Mission Board. “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.”
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 ten among all states in resettled refugees per capita. In 2015, 61 percent of those refugees resettled in Louisville. Refuge Louisville says the city has refugees representing 120 nationalities and who speak more than one hundred different languages.
The Refuge is located in the heart of an area with the three largest apartment complexes housing refugees in the city. Antioch Church, founded by Todd Robertson, launched in the building’s basement in 2010. Though the church eventually moved out of the building, they realized it would be an ideal location to reach into Louisville’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 his role as a teaching elder at Antioch to the director of missions for the Louisville Regional Baptist Association.
John Barnett describes the current effort 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,” said Barnett. “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.”
Three major efforts encapsulate most 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 arriving in Louisville. The welcome teams are joint efforts between Refuge and 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 first three months in the city. At the end of the three-month commitment, the groups throw a “milestone party,” celebrating the family’s completion of a quarter of a year in the United States.
“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 local church members with refugees who have specific needs. Church members provide services such as English classes, computer classes, job-search assistance, and in-home tutoring for refugee families. Barnett says when Refuge discovers a need they go to the churches to see if they have volunteers to support the effort.
“We never want to be a top-down organization,” Barnett 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.”
Finally, Refuge provides churches with an opportunity to immerse future church leaders and cross cultural workers into an international context. The yearlong immersion program encourages these leaders to move into a refugee community, where they have opportunities to engage refugees with deep, 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, he 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,” Barnett said. “This is a good place to learn, to learn to be embedded [in a community] by your church.”
Barnett notes that through the year of immersion, leaders will 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 when they apply for missionary service.
Barnett hopes that, as churches engage with refugees through Refuge Louisville, 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.
Tobin Perry is a writer based in Evansville, Indiana. He and his family are currently members of Center of Hope Church. He has previously served as a writer and editor with NAMB, Saddleback Church, and the IMB. He has also served as a local church pastor in Newburgh, Indiana.