A Sanctuary for Refugees

Date Posted: 
Thursday, February 20, 2014

By Rob MacKay

Visitors to New York Harbor often gaze at the Emma Lazarus quote “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. But to see these words put into action, these tourists should find their way to Des Moines, Iowa, where the Meredith Drive Reformed Church has been serving recent arrivals for several years.

Meredith Drive currently counts roughly 100 refugees—including natives of Burma, Eritrea, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Vietnam—among its members. In fact, the foreign-born population is so big that the church promoted Isaiah Nengean to the full-time position of director of multicultural ministries this past summer.

Day-to-day ministry

Currently, Nengean, who started part-time, spends countless hours in the field, evangelizing from door to door. But he also gets involved in housing and education issues and works hard at comforting parishioners as they integrate themselves into a new culture and deal with a new climate. Plus, he provides counseling and a personal touch, as many of them are still reeling from life in their war-torn home countries.

Some parishioners were born in refugee camps, and many parishioners lost family members in the conflicts, he says, while still more witnessed mass violence. One man even confessed to having blood on his hands.

“He knows that he’s redeemed. He was carrying it for a long time,” says Nengean, a Nigeria native who moved to the United States to study. “The greatest gift you can give to anyone is the gift of the gospel. It changes their focus when they walk with Christ daily.”

Practical challenges

There are some practical issues, too. Some of the new parishioners have different concepts of noise than native-born parishioners, as well as different philosophies on raising children and worship rituals. Many are converts from other religions or Christian denominations, and many have problems understanding English.

Jon Nelson, the mission outreach pastor at Meredith Drive, actively sought a church with a large refugee population when looking for a job four years ago. The native of northwestern Iowa says his job is heavy but rewarding.

An opportunity to learn from others

“It’s a privilege. It’s an opportunity that God has given us to serve and learn from others,” he says. “I always had a heart for the vulnerable in our society, and I like to be an advocate and a voice for them. You see the struggles that people have and you see what we take for granted at times.”

A modest Nelson is quick to note that he is no expert at working with this population, adding: “I wouldn’t idealize it. We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re doing what we can and we have the right person in place with Isaiah.”

Though a Midwestern city that is 76.4 percent white as per the 2010 Census, Des Moines has had a large refugee population dating back to the 1970s, when Iowa governor Robert D. Ray responded to a request from the Ford administration to help resettle Southeast Asians fleeing the Vietnam War. Ray increased his efforts at bringing refugees to Iowa during the Carter administration, and even today the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services is the only entity run by a state government that is certified as a resettlement agency by the U.S. State Department.

So there’s every indication that Meredith Drive will continue to serve a large refugee population for years to come. The church has just started renting space at the Willkie House, a community center in Des Moines that has classrooms, a gym, and a large gathering area. This will make it possible for the church to offer after-school programs, English as a Second Language classes, Bible studies, worship services, and other enrichment activities as well as run a food pantry or furniture storage closet. Longer-range projects might include a community garden, financial literacy education, and adoption services.

“We’re ready to move forward with this next step at the Willkie House,” Nelson says. “I’m excited to see how this ministry center affects our church. We’re waiting for God’s leading in the direction he desires.”

Looking for help connecting with people in your neighborhood? Email local@rca.org.

Rob MacKay is a freelance writer and a member of Sunnyside Reformed Church in New York City.

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