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The top of the puzzle box

Refugee ministry training in Atlanta, February 2023

As the Director of Training, I get a first-hand view of IAFR's work to resource and encourage ministries and churches seeking to serve refugees in their communities. This month we hosted trainings in Atlanta and Boston.

In Atlanta, nearly two dozen people from half a dozen ministries with different focuses came together to cross-pollinate and enrich each other's growth in ministry knowledge and collaboration. As I looked around at the diversity in the room, I noted the couple, who had served in Ethiopia for several decades, and the patience with which they now approached work with refugees in the U.S. They brought wisdom and a calming presence to our discussions. Beside them, an eager intern shared her enthusiasm and vibrant passion.

It challenged how I approach ministry.

Over lunch, a participant shared his thoughts on what he was learning with me while we ate together.

"When you said that a refugee is a person who happens to be in vulnerable circumstances, it challenged how I view my ministry approach. It's easy to forget that the displaced people we befriend are not poor people who need our help as charity projects but people we welcome with dignity into a collaborative community."

I nodded, "I have to agree that this simple recognition changes so much. The Church's call is to show up in cross-shaped ways, but even with good intentions, we can get off course. We have to remember this ministry belongs to God. He's the source of power, healing, and restoration. Those things do not come from me. But when I show up in my small human size, God is faithful to make good out of it. Thank you for sharing with me."

Voices from Syria and the DR Congo

After lunch, two men from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo shared their stories of displacement and welcome. They gave helpful feedback on how this community has done well and some fruitful ways to improve their approaches in the future.

The training covered topics and discussions ranging from the impact of trauma to evangelism meeting aid. Whether the participants were brand new and wanted a good foundation or were further on, hitting hangups that come with the challenges of this work, IAFR's training equipped them to show up for their displaced neighbors in life-giving, sustainable, and faithfully Christian ways.

Seeing the Top of the Puzzle Box

At the end of the training, an older gentleman approached me. Seasoned by many years of refugee work and deeply thoughtful as a participant in our training, his comment surprised and blessed me.

"I think what you gave me in this training is that you helped me see the top of the puzzle box. I've been playing with these pieces of refugee ministry approaches and ideas for years, but you gave me language and framework for how they connect."

CLICK HERE to learn more about our training opportunties!

We are a tool in the toolbelt of the Church, helping Christians engage in fruitful and sustainable ways with forcibly displaced people.

- Rachel Uthmann

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Becoming like a second mother

Sharon (middle), Nestorine, and Dio

I don't like you," Dio declared in her broken English. Dio and her siblings were refugee kids in an afterschool program at which Sharon volunteered in Atlanta.

You don't have to like me.

New to refugee work and frustrated by her inability to communicate well enough to understand where her students were coming from, Sharon tried to bring order to her classroom.

"You don't have to like me." she told Dio firmly, "Just sit down, and we'll do your homework."

Taking time to listen and understand

Later that day, Sharon asked Dio if she could visit her family in their home. If she could understand their story, perhaps she could help these children adjust better.

"Come on a Sunday. Our parents don't work that day." Dio invited.

The first Sunday Sharon visited, the family shared their story. Nestorine, Dio's mother, welcomed her guest warmly but spoke no English. She answered questions in Kaba. Pierrette, Nestorine's oldest daughter, translated with her limited English.

Everything is hard, but we are grateful to God for being safe.

"We come from the Central African Republic. We fled to Cameroon. We were later resettled here.

We found work in a chicken factory because we do not need to speak English there.

Everything is hard because we need to speak English and don't know how yet.

But we are grateful to God for being safe."

This visit planted the seed of a long and beautiful friendship.

Sharon and Nestorine

Reciprocity - Mutual Blessing

Sharon visited Nestorine frequently, helping her sort mail and navigate legal forms. In return, Nestorine checked in on Sharon when she was sick, fed her nourishing food, and welcomed her wholeheartedly into the happy, busy life of the family.

Sharon, who had arrived in the States from the Philippines in 2011, found community with Nestorine's family even as she supported them in adjusting to their new world in Atlanta.

Helping the family navigate their new world

As the kids learned to speak English more fluently, they adjusted and flourished.

Intelligent, responsible, and fun-loving, they now share a special bond with their teacher, who has become their mother's best friend.

When she struggles to help her children navigate a cultural challenge or needs an outside voice to reason with her kids, Nestorine calls Sharon. "Talk to your children," she says. "They need you to help them."

In 2019 the Barge family purchased a home. Sharon helped with the legal paperwork and contracts.

Last year, while waiting for her green card, the family welcomed Sharon to stay with them until it arrived.

They are now helping others.

Sharon taught Pierrette and her family how to help other new arrivals navigate the challenges of resettlement. The family is known for their generosity as they give back to their community.

God intersected our lives.

"I'm grateful that God intersected our lives," Sharon says. "They are so generous as a family. And it's a joy to be like a second mother to the kids. I don't have kids, and I'm not married. To be trusted that much is such an enormous honor."

She pauses, laughing. "And we will always look back to where it started with Dio complaining that she doesn't like me. Now here we are with more than seven years of friendship."

CLICK HERE to learn more about the ministry in Atlanta


*Sharon Tonzo serves as IAFR Ministry Leader in Atlanta.

- Sharon Tonzo with Rachael Lofgren

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