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A warm welcome

A local church enlists volunteers to wrap around refugee families resettling in their community.

Interview with Carol Gates, Blythefield Hills Baptist Church

African refugee youth walking through an airport

When the plane touched down at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, a small group from Blythefield Hills Baptist Church (BHBC) was there to meet the Mupenda* family, Congolese refugees being resettled in West Michigan. The parents had met and married in a refugee camp, where they’d lived for 18 years. The camp was the only home their four children, ages 2 to 9, had ever known.

Church volunteers had been preparing for the family’s arrival. Some people donated furniture and supplies, others cleaned and hung decorations. All had lovingly worked together to create a warm homecoming for the family. But none were prepared for the emotional moment when the Mupenda family saw their new home for the first time.

“He and his wife got down on their knees and raised their hands in prayer,” said Carol Gates, a BHBC staff member who leads the church’s refugee outreach ministry. “So we all got down on our knees too, praying aloud and thanking God.”

A memorable, multi-lingual prayer meeting broke out on the lawn that day—a picture of families taking care of one another. But behind that spontaneous moment were years of intentional preparation.

“I knew others in the church were interested to help refugees, but they were nervous,” Carol said. “People who have never experienced deep need often don’t know how to meet needs for others. I thought, How can I help connect these groups of people?

Six years ago, Carol and a friend volunteered to start a Tuesday morning Bible study group inspired by Ministries of Mercy, a Tim Keller book about connecting words and deeds. Over a period of six months, groups study a specific issue and then go out to serve. For people who have never volunteered, the group provides a structured, comfortable way to begin.

Since 2017, refugee-centered study groups at the church have volunteered with Bethany to help resettle three refugee families in their community. They help meet a family’s specific needs, including transportation, education, conversational English, personal finance, and more. In the process, volunteers get to know the families and become friends the families can rely on as they learn their way around in the community.

In the refugee camp, the Mupenda family had limited access to medical care and no access to dental care. Caring for basic health needs became an early priority. Six volunteers who had medical training drove family members to appointments and helped them get information they needed at their appointments.

Transportation was another challenge for the family—Mr. Mupenda worked nights, Mrs. Mupenda worked days, and their children needed to get to school. But they didn’t have a vehicle, and neither knew how to drive. BHBC volunteers responded by taking shifts to help everyone get where they needed to go.

In the fall of 2018, BHBC’s children’s program raised enough money to buy the family a minivan, with funds left over to send Mr. Mupenda to driver training classes. A retiree in the group volunteered to be his private driving instructor, riding along for his practice hours. Early in 2019, Mr. Mupenda passed his driving test and got his license. Now he drives himself and his wife to work. Each opportunity to help was an opportunity for group members to apply what they were learning about how to help without hurting.

“Our job is to care for people where we can and speak up for them, and that’s easier to do when everyone’s moving in the same direction,” Carol said. “When we furnished the Mupenda’s house, 20 people were working together who wouldn’t otherwise be connected. We need more connection like that in our lives.”

Blythefield Hills Baptist Church has developed a manual that other churches can use to begin a similar service-oriented Bible study. Contact Carol at [email protected] to request a free copy.

Carol recommends: • Ministries of Mercy, by Tim Keller • When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett •

  • A pseudonym

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