OUR MINISTRY TO REFUGEES: A ‘loaves and fishes’ alternative

By Brad Pontius

In an effort to help displaced victims of violence by the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, discovered a different way to assist thousands of Iraqi Christians who have been forced from their homes. An initial effort to host refugees in Hoosierland was transformed into a campaign to provide necessary, life-giving tools to 125,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), Christians who lived in the Ninevah Plains near Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.

Families huddle around space heaters powered by gas generators to keep warm in temporary homes. These folks live in a settlement for displaced persons in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

It all began simply enough: an Indiana University undergrad asked Rawand, a Kurdish student from Iraq, “Can I help you?” Laura had heard that six Iraqis had been invited to study at Indiana University early in 2004, during the Iraq crisis.

Rawand was proud to be chosen to represent his homeland in America. He wanted to experience all that he could during the six-month stay. His conservative Muslim background didn’t keep him from exploring mid-American culture—including faith foundations.

The relationship between Laura and Rawand spread to her fiancé, Joel, and to our family. We shared many conversations about family, culture, and faith over meals and coffee. Laura and Joel included Rawand in campus activities, community events, and family celebrations. They learned much from each other about life in America and Iraq. Laura visited a mosque with Rawand to experience Muslim prayers and understand more about Islam. Through their reciprocal relationship, Rawand became the man of peace who opened the door for Sherwood Oaks to assist suffering Christians in Kurdistan.

Rawand attended many special programs at Sherwood Oaks. He was curious and always complimentary of the worship experience. By the time he left Bloomington, he was part of our family. From Indiana he traveled to Washington, D.C., to complete a graduate degree at American University. As he returned home, we began to understand how privileged we are to know Rawand. He works in Kurdistan’s state department, making regular trips to other nations as a diplomat.

Seeking to Help

When our church began to explore the possibility of hosting Iraqi Christian refugee families, we asked Rawand to look into the options for us. I was surprised to hear that he had gone immediately to the archbishop of the Orthodox church and the director of Christian affairs to find the most eligible family(s) to send our way. We were shocked to receive word that the Christian overseers kindly rejected our request.

“We prefer to keep the Christians in our region,” came our reply. “They have been active here since the 5th century, and we do not want to lose them. They are important to Kurdistan and to Iraq.”

Although the Christian population registers only 6 percent in Iraq, Christians provide a necessary moral fiber in the Kurdistan region. The Kurdzman Church of Christ in Erbil, started in 2000, was the first Evangelical church in the region, and the Evangelical population there is growing rapidly among young adults.

Rawand came back to the United States in June 2016 for a conference in Washington, D.C., and a special visit with our family in Indiana. He presented us with a letter from the directorate of Christian Affairs requesting a different kind of help.

The letter outlined the vast need among 125,000 Christian IDP families living in large camps around Erbil. The Islamic State forced the Christians to leave all of their properties and possessions behind. They hope to return to their homes when IS leaves, but in the meantime the Iraqi Christians need to reconstruct their lives by meeting their basic needs. We would like to see these families survive and thrive.

Help Thousands

Our plan to host refugees was shortsighted. In fact, much of our strategy for global engagement has been to support indigenous leaders who have effective outreaches in their home countries among their own people. We support more indigenous missions than American missionaries overseas. We know the high cost of crossing cultures. Why would we prefer to host two or three families to migrate to Hoosierland when we can help thousands of families find their way back home in Kurdistan?

With tears in his eyes, Rawand described the immense pressure that providing for 1.8 million souls has put on the Kurdistan region. Housing, food, waste disposal, lack of purposeful jobs for the men, medical care for children and the elderly, and education for the children topped the list. He has served with the Rwanga Foundation, a relief agency that provides assistance to IDPs in the region. He knows firsthand the challenges of resettlement.

“The Christian families represent just a portion of the needs, but if your church can help care for them, you can be part of the solution,” Rawand told us. “The NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are running low on resources. Be assured that we will channel your resources directly to the Christian families.”

Rawand explained that the Christian IDP families previously had prosperous lives, with every material advantage that a middle-class life in America offers. Suddenly, in their pajamas, they were walking away from everything, thankful to be alive, but wondering what the future would bring. One goldsmith mentioned to a relief worker that he was the owner of 15 shops with more than a ton of gold in his business treasury. Now he has to stand in line for water, like everyone else.

Meeting the Needs

Like most Jesus followers in the United States, when we see the need, we want to do something to help, but we’re not sure what to do. Is it best to host a family by diving into the mountains of paperwork and resettlement details of housing, furnishings, transportation, employment, and cultural and emotional adjustment? Or if we send financial assistance to Iraq, can we really trust that our resources will be used to help the IDP families as promised? Either decision demands that we put faith in the people and systems God has put before us.

Consequently, Sherwood Oaks launched a new plan to raise funds to purchase generators; fuel; evaporation coolers; Quonset huts for education, medical clinics, and worship; school supplies; and long-term meds.

A brief video, a simple brochure, and a passionate plea during the worship services presented the opportunity in early October 2016. International Disaster Emergency Service (IDES) agreed to provide a $20,000 grant. By mid-November the campaign reached $77,000. The goal was raised to $100,000 by Christmas.

Ultimately, we raised $114,000. Already $20,000 has been sent to serve 4,000 families with winter fuel, coats, and blankets.

In a recent conversation with Laura about the good that her friendship with Rawand is yielding for so many Iraqi IDPs, she said, “This reminds me of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes. Once again Jesus is taking the small gift of friendship that we offer, and he is multiplying it to bring great blessing to many.”

Sherwood Oaks Christian Church is being enriched by this opportunity to share with our Iraqi Christian brothers and sisters. We hope to be able to share much more than our resources in the future. We look forward to learning from those who have suffered so much for our faith.

We are thankful to Laura for her loving spirit and her willingness to be salt and light to a new student on campus. Her friendship with Rawand has led our church into a partnership that will change many lives.

In Jesus’ math, five loaves and two fish or merely asking, “Can I help you?” is all it takes to bless thousands.

Brad Pontius is the minister of local and global outreach at Sherwood Oak Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

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