Flourishing by Helping Refugees to Thrive
Written by Jessica Udall from MNA Refugee and Immigrant Ministry (March 2019 Newsletter)
When—30 years ago—members of Westminster PCA in Lancaster, PA, welcomed a young student from Kenya who had started to attend Sunday services, they could not have imagined how that welcome would grow into the exciting ministry that today is a major characteristic of their church!
In 1987, John Mwaura arrived in the United States as an immigrant. He and his family were among the first Kenyans to settle in Lancaster, PA. They knew no one and faced a multitude of challenges as they adjusted to life in the United States. They began attending Westminster Presbyterian Church.
“People from Westminster took us under their wings,” says Mwaura fondly. "They helped us with parenting and provided us groceries, rent. They helped us with medical care, they took our children out to do things, invited us to barbecue with them. My children still remember those things. When I think of that kind of support, my eyes fill with tears. God used the people at Westminster to make us who we are in America today. They are the ones who have made us successful.”
And Mwaura has indeed become successful. He eventually received his PhD from Penn State and worked in the field of mental health and then as the director for the graduate school of a Presbyterian college. He established a nationally recognized dialysis clinic in Kenya, and makes frequent trips there to oversee that work.
“The people of Westminster helped me to stand on my feet,” says Mwaura. “Now my wife and I have the privilege to give back for what has been done for us. We have the opportunity to serve.”
When, years after the Mwauras arrived, Westminster member Connie O'Connor and other women from the church started a weekly clothing ministry at the city rescue mission, they began to notice that many who came seeking clothing were recent refugees. They could see that they needed help. Around 2011, Connie and her husband, Jim, an elder at Westminster, launched both an ESL ministry and a refugee ministry at Westminster.
John Mwaura saw in the lives of these Burmese and Nepalese refugees an echo of his own family's initial challenges, and - along with many others from Westminster - he warmly welcomed them, and showed them the same love with which his own family had been greeted.
Those early refugee groups have acculturated well into the Lancaster community. Some who are now believers are worshiping at Westminster and some have formed congregations of their own.
In 2016, Congolese refugees—many of them already Christians—began arriving in large numbers to the Lancaster area. John Mwaura and his wife Rebecca speak Swahili - the language of the Congolese.
The Mwauras demonstrated Christ's love to the Congolese in dozens of practical ways, day after day, and their fellow church members worked together with them.
Westminster started a Swahili worship service to provide these new arrivals with an opportunity to worship in their heart language. Attendance was low for awhile, ministry was very difficult, and leadership considered ending the ministry. However, John encouraged them to continue. His vision and commitment helped many weary leaders to persevere.
A newly-ordained Westminster elder, John has taken a leadership role in the Congolese fellowship, even connecting with the services by Skype when he is in Kenya!
A new wave of Congolese arrived in 2018, including many Congolese men who were eager to learn from John and others at Westminster, to gradually provide additional leadership for this growing faith community.Since the fall of last year, over one hundred people have been gathering at Westminster regularly to worship together in Swahili.
Darla Esh, former volunteer coordinator for refugee ministry at Westminster, says: “We as a church would be nowhere near where we are today in ministering to our Congolese neighbors without John and his wife Rebecca. Worshiping together with them in the Swahili service with so many Congolese families is to me a foretaste of heaven!"
Step by step, the Lord is leading His people at Westminster Lancaster into new avenues of ministry to their brothers and sisters in Christ from abroad—their new friends and neighbors!
In addition to the still-thriving ESL ministry for refugee and immigrant adults led by dedicated and loving Westminster volunteers each week, other men and women from the church now help teach reading skills to children and youth who have grown up in refugee camps without access to quality education. Many church volunteers also provide rides to church each week - and to other appointments - for those who don't yet have their own cars or licenses.
“We’re by no means the experts, nor do we have all the answers," says Jim O'Connor, who along with his wife Connie helped start the ESL and Refugee Ministries at Westminster, and are still immersed in it. "We struggle to know how to help with the overwhelming problems and challenges our Congolese friends face, and it causes us to cry out to the Lord for His wisdom and guidance each day. There is real joy in serving these wonderful people our Heavenly Father has sent to us but it is in our weakness that He gives us strength to do this work."
Lately, “a number of Westminster families have begun 'adopting' individual refugee families and have gotten even more involved in their lives,relates Kelly Oliver, Westminster's Refugee Assimilation Coordinator. " The refugee families that have been 'adopted' have become much more engaged in the church and seem to be making strides towards greater confidence and independence in their new lives as Americans.”
Westminster member Lee Winters’ 14-year-old son saw a request in the bulletin for families to get involved in refugee ministry and asked if their family could participate. Lee had been praying about this herself and soon the whole family was on board! They got connected with a Congolese woman named Charlotte and her two school-age children. “When refugees come to this country, nobody really comes alongside them to help them learn how to live in America,” says Lee. The Winters family and other Westminster members are working to change this, one family at a time.
The Winters hope that they have been “a source of peace” for Charlotte’s family. They worship with them in the Swahili service twice a month, have invited them over on Christmas and have hosted a birthday party for Charlotte. They have helped Charlotte’s son learn to ride a bike, they tutor Charlotte and her friends in English, and they take the family to medical appointments as needed. They are also available to help with day-to-day needs such as learning to pay bills and running errands.
“We are with them 3-4 times during the week,” shares Winters,”I recognize that not everybody has that much time to give, and honestly I NEVER thought that I did, either, but when we met them we fell in love. They are so precious. They LOVE the Lord and praise Him and thank Him for what they have. It has truly been eye-opening for our family.”
The Winters family are among a growing group of folks involved in this type of relational ministry at Westminster. “Our refugee ministry has awakened in our congregation a fresh desire to serve,” Missions Pastor Tucker York comments.
“Our many volunteers appreciate the value of having language-learners that are new to our culture. Their presence requires us to be clear on biblical truth and to exercise hospitality. The result is that we as a congregation are growing more outward-focused and open to whomever God desires to bring into our fellowship."
"We know that Jesus looks at our Congolese friends with compassion," affirms Jim O'Connor, "so we love and serve them during the window of opportunity the Lord has given us."
Westminster elder John Mwaura encourages missions-minded American churches to recognize the integral connection between refugee ministry and global missions: “The Lord has brought people from the nations to our church communities. We must recognize that missions HERE has a positive effect on missions THERE."
"We speak the Gospel and demonstrate Christ's love to people here, and then they are on Skype and WhatsApp, talking to their family and friends in the refugee camps and in their homelands. The Word of Christ will spread to people we might not otherwise be able to reach, through people they trust, who speak their language! Refugee ministry is tightly intertwined with the Great Commission!”
Jessica Udall writes on building intercultural harmony one friendship at a time at Loving the Stranger Blog.