My husband’s home church, Temple Baptist in Rockford IL, has a history with refugees and immigrants. Started by Swedish arrivals, services were held in Swedish well into the last century. Apparently memories of being new to a nation were passed on and kept the hearts of members open as they have continued to welcome new arrivals, including refugee children.
It was five o’clock on a Friday morning and I am driving to the grocery store to pick up bananas— trying to muster all my self-control to keep from crying. I could not believe that the end of the most joyful week of my life was here.
Buying something simple like bananas for their breakfast was a welcome chore as my mind wandered and pondered the events leading up to and throughout The Welcome Project. My heart was so overwhelmed by the blessings of the Lord and broken because it would be over at 3 o’clock that afternoon.
The Welcome Project was a God created weeklong event specifically, prayerfully and strategically held for refugee children living in my hometown. In our city there are thousands of refugee families living among us. They are often out of sight because they usually live in the most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods in our city.
Over the past few years, my church has been blessed to partner with a congregation of refugees from Myanmar. The plight of the refugee parents has been an ever-growing learning experience, this year, God revealed to us the difficult situation of their children.
While there are English classes and job training assistance for adult refugees, their children arrive in the United States one day to then be dropped into a school the very next day. With limited English at best, in a foreign country with foreign customs in a strange school, these children face incredible obstacles that they negotiate alone.
As I began to learn about their struggles, I could not help but imagine what it would be like to find your school bus, classrooms, figure out lunch lines, lockers, P.E. games, understand text books and teaching in a language foreign to my own. How challenging it would be to make friends who looked, talked, and acted completely differently from what I was most familiar with.
Then imagine if you began to understand what the politicians and media were saying about you and your family. As states decided to block other refugees from coming into their communities, you realized you were unwanted and unwelcome and, depending on your country of origin, you were considered a terrorist.
The Welcome Project’s purpose was to send the opposite message…our desire was to love these children as Jesus commanded in Matthew 22:39, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our church collaborated with other believers throughout our community to host The Welcome Project that was designed to let these children know that Jesus loved them, we want to love them and they are so very welcome in our community. To send the message that our city is your city!
On the first day we had 39 students from 3rd-8th grade registered from 7 different countries; Syria, Colombia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and Congo. We planned a week full of tutoring in basic subjects: math, reading and vocabulary. We added fun games, a water-play day and crafts. We transported them and fed them.
The refugee students moved about their day in a team along with other students and small group leaders. Each day hosted a different community helper: police officers, fire fighters, an immigrant college student, an educator and a pastor who spoke on the purpose of God’s church.
The biggest activity of the day was worship (along with some really fun dance moves) and teaching that revealed Jesus through the story of Joseph. The small group leaders then met with their students to attempt to further the story of Joseph in small group discussions.
So there I stood in the checkout line on Friday morning just before the end of The Welcome Project, paying for bananas. My sadness gave way to the anticipation that the day was going to be so good and all the glory would belong to the Lord!
With a receipt and plastic bag in hand I drove to church. Volunteers would be arriving at 7:30am for devotions, church vans would be heading out to pick up students at 8am and vans filled with refugee students would return at 8:30. The last day of the first Welcome Project was just starting.
Looking back at Monday, I realized how much we learned in one week. We learned that refugee children were incredibly intimidated by good-sized white men coming to pick them up at their homes because they have a great fear of authority figures. But once the hint of trust and safety appeared, they happily ran to the vans every day afterward.
We learned that children from different countries made friends quickly over play. That food doesn’t always translate well across so many different diets (therefore, the bananas = a fan favorite). College students were superheroes. Music breaks the ice and sets the students and leaders as ease. Refugee students understand the value of learning as a key to success. They spent their tutoring time indulging in all the information they could get. Their laughter brings tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.
Their personal stories that changed our lives. These students had minimal information as to the “why” they were in the USA. Repeatedly we heard students tell us that bad people did bad things and their loved ones were either beaten, arrested or killed. None of them had an understanding of the “who” or “what” behind the circumstances that made their homeland impossible to live in. They simply follow their parents and diligently seek to negotiate their way in a new country.
The week ended with each student receiving a backpack filled with school supplies. Volunteers prayed for each one. In tears, I offered the closing teaching session on Joseph–Genesis 50:20 recounts Joseph’s comments to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…”
Looking into the eyes of 3rd grader May from Myanmar, 4th grader Yordanos from Ethiopia, 5th grader,Kevin from Colombia, 6th grader Esta from Congo, 7th grader, Abdulrahman from Syria and his cousin, 8th grader Mohammed and all the others… I could barely speak the words of scripture that so aptly captured the evil intent of people who horribly disrupted the lives of these children. Yet, in God’s grace and mercy The Welcome Project provided a platform to speak into their lives and wholeheartedly tell them that God loves them, redeems all things and intends this for good.
On this last day a significant amount of our community came out for the final session and all of us, in the great love and name of Jesus, welcomed them to our city and God created a space welcome them into our hearts.
The interaction with the students did not end after The Welcome Project. God graciously left that door open, but that is a story for another day. The Welcome Project will return in 2017 and the prayer and preparation is already underway.
What about you? How welcoming is your heart?
Heather Dellamater loves God, loves her family and loves the Green Bay Packers and peanut butter (in that order). She has been married to Brian for 22 years. Mother of two boys – Noah, 19 and Gabe, 13. Heather is currently the Family Life Director and Temple Baptist Church but will soon be heading to the mission field of Kenya in early 2017. In Kenya, she will be the Director of Kijani Farm alongside her husband in a gospel-centered community development project. Heather is a self-defined nerd who loves to learn, read, teach, listen to podcasts, and tackling the occasional Pinterest project. Above all things, Heather truly loves to serve God and considers herself to be incredibly blessed that through serving the Lord she has met amazing people that have challenged and encouraged her in her own walk with God.