8 years ago, when Rebekah Davis first moved to Nashville, she spent a few hours each week serving refugees that had just arrived from South East Asia as a part of a class assignment at the Institute for G.O.D. She recalls that she felt compelled to do so based on her studies in the Old Testament where God exhorts his people to show hospitality to the foreigner (Lev. 19:33-34).
The first couple she met barely spoke English, but were determined to work hard and provide a good life for their two-year-old son. Coming from a country where the minority learns to drive due to the abundance of public transport, they quickly realized the challenge in getting to work, to the grocery store, or the hospital. “In broken communication and with a lot of hand motions,” Rebekah recalls, “the father explained to me that their son had fallen very ill in the middle of the night, soon after they arrived in the States. What should have been a quick trip to the ER turned into a nightmare because they didn’t know how to call an ambulance, could not reach a doctor, and didn’t know anyone who knew how to drive.” The father then asked Rebekah to help him obtain his driver’s license so something like this wouldn’t happen again.
“I began sitting with him, every week. We would pour over the TN driver training manual, and I would try my best to explain the rules of the road. With the help of many visual aids and because of his resolute commitment to study, my new friend, Hla Tin, soon passed his written exam and went on to gain his driver’s license!” Rebekah explains, still as excited as if it happened last week. She went on, “He was able to offer rides to other refugees, and even teach them what he had learned.”
As word spread, Rebekah was asked to teach a group of adults who had the same desire. Utilizing the concepts she was learning in her Community Development courses at the Institute, she developed a 6-week program that provided print-outs, practice exams, and preparation for their tests--a course that has now been offered on multiple occasions.
Due to the relationships Rebekah built, the refugees began asking her what else she could teach them. One need in particular was expressed by an expecting mother, nervous about navigating the hospital system in America, particularly with such limited English and a very different culture. Rebekah reached out to Kendice (then Ricci) Hartnell, another Institute student with an emphasis in maternal health. Kendice responded by teaching her a childbirth education class and volunteering to serve as the woman’s doula. She says, “The experience changed my life. I got an up-close look at the family life of refugees and how hard they have to work to “make it” here in the U.S.”
Like Rebekah, Kendice went on to begin helping numerous refugees, from multiple regions of the world. One group from Burma really impressed Kendice with the sense of community they had maintained. Despite originally being resettled in different zip codes and states, this group had worked hard to stay in proximity, knowing that things would go smoother if they were together.
Like the drivers education course that developed, childbirth classes followed a similar trajectory. The need existed, the refugee asked for help, they were taught once, even more came and asked for more, course goals and outlines were developed, and more volunteers from the Institute began to teach. After gaining empowerment through learning how to drive and how to navigate the medical system (particularly around birth), another need emerged: “Can you teach us the Bible?”
Kendice shared, “They were so encouraged by our love for them, and they could tell we knew the Scriptures.” We gladly complied, and began a weekly Bible study that met for two years.
The trajectory should continue, but there was an unfortunate interruption. An unwanted break, according to Kendice. “The apartment complex where many of them lived decided to renovate -- something I was initially happy to hear about. Throughout my time with them, I’ve witnessed major pest problems, leaking ceilings, mildew, drafty windows, and rotting floors. It reminded me of a prison cell. I was so thankful that our friends would have a more livable environment!” Instead, the renovation was a face lift. Paint was applied to the walls and little to no attention paid to underlying issues.
Soonafter, our friends brought us a letter that they needed help translating. The message: Due to the improvements made to the facilities, rent was going to increase. If they were unable to pay the higher price, they had one month to move out. The price was beyond what any of them were able to pay.
Just like that, the community they had worked hard to cultivate was being dispersed. Their network of friends was being broken apart. “In the midst of it all,” Kendice explained, “we tried to continue having Bible study. But because many of them still didn’t have driver's licenses, or had multiple children to transport, the factors seemed stacked against us. Reluctantly, we took a break.” They met every once in awhile and prayed that God could help.
Last week Kendice was paid a visit by one of her Burmese friends along with a newly pregnant mother. They came to ask if the Bible studies could start up again, because all of the women and their husbands have continued asking for it. Kendice said she would love to, but asked how they thought it could happen, due to transportation issues. Kendice said bluntly: “I was not expecting her response.”
“We can drive now! Remember? Your friends taught us to drive!”
Kendice said, “It brought tears to my eyes. God works in wonderful ways. Though both of our refugee support programs were benefitting this Burmese community, it was this moment that showed me how holistic our care really was. Before I had even prayed for God’s help finding a solution, he had already been working to provide one! These refugees were being developed, not just in one area of life, but in multiple!”
Kendice continued, “I was reminded that one individual cannot give a community what they need. One specialty is not enough. I am witnessing a body of believers at G.O.D. embracing another body of believers. Their refuge is not temporary, it is a friendship that shows commitment and is producing people who are changed and developed.” Amen.