In a European church* that has almost doubled in size due to the large influx of Syrian (and Afghani, and Iranian, and other) refugees, WorldVenture workers Kirk* and Renae* are witnesses to miracles.
Kirk had the privilege of baptizing an Iranian refugee, who said, “I left with nothing. This is the best day of my life.”
Another woman from Afghanistan described her new life in Christ this way: “All my life I’ve been a good Muslim. I went to imams, but it never seemed real. After we went through the book of John, God became near.”
All around them, people from hard-to-reach places are finding God. It’s a beautiful thing when people once prejudiced against the West and all it stood for are welcomed and introduced to a citizenship that will never go away. And Kirk and Renae get to be a part of these weekly occurrences.
But these stories don’t start in such a heartwarming way.
They start in the middle of the Aegean Sea, on an overcrowded raft that will capsize at any moment. One Syrian man Kirk and Renae knew journeyed through Turkey with a friend using smugglers the whole way. Crossing the Aegean Sea at night on a 10-man rickety raft, the boat capsized. Everyone drowned, except for him and his friend.
If someone is fortunate enough to live through the sea crossing, they usually find themselves holed up somewhere in Eastern Europe in old abandoned buildings, living on nothing, waiting for months to complete the next stage of the journey.
There’s a reason most of the people making this journey are young men. That’s because the journey itself is very physically challenging and dangerous, not to mention the extra risk of abuses that can happen to women. “No wonder God repeatedly calls His people to ‘love the stranger,” said Kirk.
Kirk and Renae have been reaching out to refugees in Europe since 2006, long before images of the drowned Syrian boy caught the world’s attention. They have created a center of safety, community, and learning at their center, where they offer German classes, sewing classes, an international café, sports, guitar, ceramics, and women’s programs, among other things. They facilitate volunteer opportunities for church members to help meet the tangible needs of these refugees as they wait for their asylum cases to be processed.
“It is a foretaste of heaven, where every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship the Lamb,” said Renae. “To be able to live that out with new believers and just look around the room and see the diversity of Christ’s kingdom is a privilege.”
Kirk and Renae find many of the refugees they interact with to be spiritually open and hungry: many times disillusioned with the radical expressions of Islam that drove them out of their homelands.”
But what happens when the West isn’t welcoming? Does it push these refugees to turn to a more radical expression of their faith?
“It certainly could,” said Kirk. “They have prejudices that the West is immoral and godless. So if they come and they experience a slap in the face or a slammed door…of course that’s just going to reinforce what they have heard: that these people are godless.”
The opposite, then, is also true. When true believers offer love and compassion to vulnerable, traumatized individuals, the transformation is dramatic. Which makes what Kirk and Renae do all the more important.
Renae tells one story about an Afghani woman who had to flee with her son escaping from the Taliban. While she made it to Europe, one of her sons was stuck in Bulgaria. He couldn’t get through, and it was eating this mother up. Renae simply asked if she could pray in the name of Jesus for this woman and her son. The woman agreed.
“The next week he showed up,” said Renae.
While some of these refugees may exploit the church to gain asylum, many of them are genuine with their conversions. Kirk and their church make sure the refugees go through a rigorous baptism class before they can be baptized. Even so, they find many to be genuine.
“There are people after they are baptized they are still in a Bible study class and being discipled and wanting to learn,” said Renae. “They’ve continued in that process.”
And they’ve both been encouraged at the broader evangelical community’s response to this crisis. They encourage American Christians to prepare for even more refugees in America too.
“Just be ready to be a friend,” Kirk said. “Do not put pressure on yourself to do any more than that.”
*Names and places changed or omitted for security reasons
(Photo courtesy of Kirk and Renae)