In the fall of 2015, as news of Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland by the thousands spread across the globe, members of Grace, Lexington felt the spark of a call. Little did they know that over the next six months that spark would be fanned by the Holy Spirit into a flame that would bring together the entire Lexington community.
Listening to God’s Story and Our Story
As several of our congregations are discovering through the Living Local, Joining God (LLJG) initiative, the first step in any new mission work is to listen and discover where God is already at work. For Grace, Lexington, that meant meeting with representatives of Church World Service to learn about refugees and how the process works. It also meant recalling the story of their own parish who received and built a relationship with an exiled bishop from Uganda in 1987. In listening to both their past as well as the present need, the congregation felt called to form a Refugee Working Group to further explore the possibility of resettling a refugee family.
Discerning What’s Possible
Members of Grace, Lexington were quick to realize their parish couldn’t face this challenge alone. By reaching out to other congregations and denominations, they quickly built an ecumenical network devoted to figuring out the logistics of what it would take to welcome a refugee family to the Lexington community.
In December 2015 the Refugee Working group held their first meeting of community stakeholders. The room was standing room only and represented not only other denominations, but other faiths, as well as members of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. By January, the number of committed volunteers numbered 280 from 14 denominations, 22 congregations, and four faiths (Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian).
Meetings consisted of presentations from university faculty and representatives from Church World Service, helping the community to understand the cultural forces at play in the refugee crisis as well as the network of support community members would need to provide. Practical conversations were balanced and supported by opening and closing prayers, calling upon God to clarify their missional calling:
“We pray that you will show us how we may be instruments of your peace in our own community. If the way be clear, strengthen us so we may take up the challenging but breathtaking task of providing refugee families a home of welcome among us. Help us, we pray, to prepare the soil in our places of worship and in Rockbridge County to welcome you disguised as these desperate families.” -The Rev. Bill Klein, Lexington Presbyterian Church
Testing for Readiness
In a matter of a few short months, the community had pulled together donations of furniture enough to equip a family with three children, as well as donated storage space for amassing supplies in anticipation of a family’s arrival. The clothes closet ministry at Christ Church, Buena Vista was ready to assist with outfitting a family for Lexington’s temperate climate. Lexington had proved itself ready to receive by strengthening ties between residents and community services, including schools, employers, and social services.
That readiness was none too soon, as the Refugee Working group soon got word that a Congolese couple and their six children would be arriving in Lexington on the evening of March 16, 2016. Fahizi and Jeanne Kizolo had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo 19 years ago. Their six children had been born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Public services in Tanzania have long been strained by the constant influx of refugees, as unrest and all-out war have plagued the region for over half a century.
Now they were here. And Grace Church, the Refugee Working Group, and the entire community of Lexington would be put to the ultimate test of faith in action. The family was welcomed into their new home, complete with furniture and toys for the children. Hot meals had been prepared for them and they were embraced with all the love and support the community had to offer.
Over the next weeks and months, the entire community worked to support and enable Jeanne and Fahizi to integrate into their new life in America. School administrators and even student groups from the local high school helped with purchasing school supplies and providing tutoring to the children as they began school. High school students offered babysitting so that Jeanne and Fahizi could go to appointments or receive tutoring in English. Fahizi took on multiple jobs, and Jeanne, who was expecting a baby in September, was connected with excellent prenatal care and delivered her seventh child, Emanuel, an American citizen, at the local hospital.
Reflecting on Lessons Learned
Now that Grace Church and the Refugee Working Group has resettled this first family, they are reflecting on their experience in preparation for welcoming more refugees. Their goal is to resettle three families, but they aren’t rushing the process. They want to be sure that the Kizolo family has become fully self-sufficient before they invest time and resources in another family.
The process of helping refugees requires a position of humility. The community must learn all they can about the lives these families have led prior to their arrival, so as to get them the help they need. It is not as simple as writing a check. It is a process that requires devoting time to building relationships and trust, not only with the refugees themselves, but with others in the community.
This endeavor was not one that a parish could achieve alone, it took engagement and buy-in from the entire community. It also took the grace of the Holy Spirit to move the hearts of so many in this small town. The benefits include not only a relationship with a refugee family, but a stronger community shaped around loving neighbors as ourselves.