A packed room of messengers gathered to hear about ministry among refugees at the annual meeting of Texas Baptists. Presented by the Texas Baptists Intercultural Ministry, the workshop offered participants a window into the world of refugees, offered guidelines for pursuing ministry among refugees, and also afforded the opportunity to hear-first hand from refugee pastors ministering in Texas.
Some 10.4 million individuals around the world are classified as refugees, those who are forced to flee their home country because of war, oppression and violence against them due to their religion, ethnicity or political views. Unlike immigrants, who choose the a country for economic gain, refugees have no choice but to leave, and find themselves in a new land, uprooted from their culture, their livelihood and their families.
Among refugees who are relocated to a new country, around 70,000 arrived in the United States this past year, and Texas annually receives up to 10,000, a third of which are set up in Houston. Other cities with significant refugee populations include the Dallas-Forth Worth area, Amarillo, Abilene, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Lubbock.
While these larger cities may serve as the initial landing for refugees, employment opportunities often take them to secondary cities, such as a recent rise of refugees seen in the city of Nacogdoches. This level of potential movement allows for new opportunities for ministries beyond just the major cities into the smaller towns and communities throughout Texas.
The ministry needs for refugees are vast, ranging from education and housing, to issues of transportation, employment and basic healthcare needs, not to mention the culture shock that comes from being removed from your own culture and deposited in a foreign land with foreign customs, all while having to learn a foreign language.
While agencies and the U.S. government provide some initial aid, churches and Christian ministries are well placed to become an essential support element in helping them adjust to their new surroundings through counseling and English classes or even more practical skills such as learning the public transportation system or navigating a grocery store.
"The blessing of what we do, reaching out to the immigrants and the refugees who come, goes on for generations," stated Patty Lane, director of Intercultural Ministry. "Sometimes a church may have started because one person saw a person in a grocery store who didn't know how to find groceries, and they reached out with friendship, and the result of that years later is schools and orphanages and churches being planted around the world, but it started because one person had a heart and had a vision to see that there was a person in need, and they reached out with the love of Christ."
To accomplish effective ministry among refugees, churches should learn how to be good learners and good partners.
"We must learn from them their culture and their worldview," Mark Heavener explained, suggesting that often times simple cultural misunderstandings work to hinder rather than foster partnerships. Heavener serves as a Cultural Specialist for Texas Baptists, and he suggested that taking the time to ask the right questions and patiently seek out the answers overcomes these barriers.
"We need to come alongside them, partnering with them because they know their community, they know their culture, and they know how to present the Gospel in a contextual way that they truly will understand," Heavener stated.
Being good learners and partners also help avoid interfering with existing Christian ministry among the refugees. For example, many Burmese refugees arrive in the United States with a long history of Christian culture. Unfortunately, many American churches do understand this background and begin to plant new churches with a foreign structure for these refugees, instead of partnering with existing Burmese Christian fellowships who have a rich history of faith.
"Find from the leaders what it is that they are wanting to do in ministry," Heavener said, "and equip them."
Attention then turned to a special panel of refugee pastors, representing the Congo, Burma and Cambodia, each of which answered questions about their own particular ministry challenges and communities.
Heather Bell, a pharmaceutical representative from Houston and a first-time messenger from Tallowood Baptist Church, attended the workshop and left with a renewed sense of purpose for their efforts. Bell and members from her church had recently begun a ministry with a group of refugees in Houston.
"We have so much to learn from them," Bell stated, "not only how they worship the Lord, but also about getting away from American materialism and understanding more about relationships. The workshop gave me additional reinforcement for our focus to empower the refugees to minister themselves."
Blake Killingsworth serves as Vice President for Communications at Dallas Baptist University.