It's Time to Care for Refugees

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Matt. 9:35-38)
— Matthew 9:35-38

Our Lord’s concern for people was visceral. He saw people sick, anxious, and without righteous governance, and it moved him. The human needs that surrounded him drove him to a loving response, as well as to earnest prayer for more help. Jesus saw these precious people as God’s harvest (vs. 38). The need was so great it demanded more willing workers.

Rebekah Davis, a member of G.O.D. Int'l, teaches at the Academy for G.O.D. and volunteers her time working with Burmese refugees, teaching them both the Bible and practical things, like driver's education. 

I understand some of what Jesus felt. I have felt similarly over the past three years of working with Nashville’s refugees. For me, it began three years ago when I started meeting with a refugee family who had just arrived from Malaysia. They were Burmese, but had escaped oppressive political conditions to a camp in Malaysia, before coming to the U.S. The husband had suffered a knee injury that left him unable to work and he was struggling to navigate the healthcare system here in Nashville. He had arrived eager for therapy so that he could begin to work again. But his lack of English and limited transportation options left him at a disadvantage.

Armed with a whiteboard and three markers I began working with him to get his driver’s license. I have never seen a more diligent student! Without the help of an interpreter we scoured the Driver’s License Manual and within three months he passed his written exam. In Tennessee there is no option to take this test in his own language. Just months after his arrival to the U.S., he took a 50 question, multiple-choice driver’s exam in English and passed. I was incredibly humbled to witness such ambition. Soon after he went on to pass his road test and earned his driver’s license.

Because most refugee women cannot drive or speak English, they spend a majority of the week secluded in their apartments. They have shared with us how mentally straining this loneliness can be--how easy it is to let anxiety spiral. Learning God’s word week-by-week revives them, educates them as mothers, and connects them with other women.

That relationship opened the door into the community of Burmese refugees and since then I have continued to teach--along with several other volunteers-- more driver’s education and Bible studies. It was the Burmese women who enthusiastically pressed for Bible studies. Most of them are mothers, unsure of how to train up their children for the Lord, especially in a new world apart from familial support. We began 7 months ago, awkwardly struggling to teach theological interpretations through a translator. There were a lot of laughs, tries and retries, as we worked to share a life-giving word that would encourage these women. What a gift the experience has been for all of us involved! One woman recently testified, “I love to learn the details of the Bible stories. I have never had such good teaching. Now when I have to make a difficult decision I think about all I have learned from the Bible and I am able to make better decisions.”

A few weeks ago a new couple showed up at Bible study. The husband, Zau Khun, is unabashedly eager to be there, despite the fact that it is a ladies group! “In Burma,” he shared, “the men cannot go to church. We have to work every day. There is no sabbath so we cannot study God’s Word. This study is an answer to my prayers.” He has been waiting his whole life for the opportunity to study the Bible!

Notice that in the Matthew passage, Jesus’ first moves of ministry were to teach. That is because teaching is empowering. It enhances understanding and is a dignifying experience. Jesus’ teachings served to uplift people and guide those who faced daily suffering. We have similar people living amongst us. They are harassed by bureaucratic systems, and helpless in a new world that is moving quickly around them--too quickly to give them the support they require. The refugees in our city need taught. They need people to take the time to explain and show, to care enough to empower them. They must learn to speak English, learn how to pay bills, learn to navigate the public transportation system, or get a driver’s license.

Often the service offered can simply be a result of the fact that you’ve lived in America your whole life. During one of my first experiences of regularly visiting a refugee family’s house I noticed how warm it always felt inside. Though the days were cool outside, their small apartment was much warmer than necessary; I always dressed ready to shed layers. Remembering the warm tropical climate they came from, I assumed they liked it that way and I never said anything. However, after a few months the husband brought me his electric bill with deep concern on his face. It was extremely high, and in broken English he explained that he couldn’t pay it. I went over to his thermostat and showed him how to work the dials. I explained that he would need to lower the heat, and instead bundle up with warm socks and jackets.

The next month he brought me his new electric bill with a large grin on his face. It was reduced by more than half! The simple step of showing him how to work his thermostat had saved them money and anxiety. I will never forget that moment. All it required was someone willing to come alongside and make themselves available.

Our Tuesday night Refugee Bible Study is a highlight of the week, not only for our refugee friends, but also for many of our volunteers. 

This article is not meant to merely inform, it is meant to compel. Please, take time to consider how you can help with the exhaustive needs that refugees face when they arrive in our city, or your city. It is too easy to move through our busy lives and relegate the refugee to gated apartment complexes on Nolensville Road, assuming that someone else will meet their needs. They will not. No government organization can adequately come alongside each and every family and help holistically integrate them into this new way of life. Please join me in taking responsibility for a few. Together we can make a difference.

This is a role that must be filled by compassionate people. Contact World Relief, or Catholic Charities, or serve alongside us at G.O.D. International, to meet families and show compassionate care. Take time to regularly visit their homes, pray with them and teach them. Help heal their diseases by taking them to the hospital, or assisting them with medical insurance paperwork. Relieve very real anxieties by working through bills and bank statements, and teaching them unfamiliar technology. Watch their children as they go to an English class, or drop by with a bag of fresh produce. You might just get the treat of sitting down with them over a bowl of noodle soup and hearing their stories. Become the answer to Jesus’ prayer, and join us in this labor.

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