I walked into the auditorium at the end of the “youth fellowship time.” In other words, I walked in on 15 teenagers somehow managing to simultaneously text on their smartphones, run laps, flirt and eat junk food. I might have mistaken it for any other youth group in town, except that I couldn’t decipher a single word they were saying (since they were speaking Nepalese) and there were one too many saris in the room.
In fact, 14 of these 15 kids are children of refugees. This is the youth group of the Himalayan Community Mission Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
I was there to meet the pastor…to find out just one thing: What does effective ministry to refugees look like?
Pastor Bishnu brought his family to the US in 2011 from Nepal in order for his two children to have the opportunity to receive a quality education. God rather miraculously caused them to be chosen by lottery to receive a Diversity Visa. While they are here, Bishnu (who holds a Masters of Divinity and a Masters in Community Development) figured he might as well work on his PhD and start a church for refugees.
Actually, Bishnu and his wife, Kamala, weren’t expecting to lead a church. God simply walked them into it, and they accepted His call. In 2012, they started a Bible study with 12 Nepalese people from Bhutan. It started to grow, attracting more Bhutanese refugees who were open to Christianity. They finally had their first formal church service in August 2013. The church is now one year old, with weekly attendance around 50 people and active outreach to hundreds more.
There are many days when Bishnu and Kamala feel stretched too thin, traveling about 25 miles from their home to the church after working full time all week, parenting, and completing doctoral work. At the same time, Bishnu says, “We really thank God for this opportunity. We never imagined that we would be leading a church of 50-60 refugees with many more we are reaching out to. But we are so attached to this community now. They are like our spiritual children.”
Okay, *BUT* Bishnu has a bit of an edge over little ol’ me. I would love to do ministry like this, but:
a) I don’t speak Nepalese…or really anything besides ‘merican English.
b) I don’t have an M.Div.
c) I’m not from a high-caste Brahmin family, which wins Bishnu respect in the community and an opening for relationship.
I asked for Bishnu’s advice, and here is what he told me:
- When people hear about work with refugees, they immediately want to start donating clothes and food. But most of these people have more than enough food. They get food stamps as part of the resettlement program. And many have the attitude, “All we had in the refugee camp was other people’s cast off things. We would rather have one new thing to wear than many used things.”
- There are already enough programs available to them for learning English and finding jobs. That is not their greatest need.
- Refugees need to be part of family again. They don’t know the culture or have connections. They may learn English, but they need someone to have conversations with. If you want to reach out to refugees, be family to them. Hang out together. Invite them in. Talk…and listen.
- There is a window of about six months after a family arrives when they are most open to new ideas – including the gospel. Many have the mindset, “I am moving to America, so I will adopt American religion.” If the Church doesn’t share the Truth with them during this critical time, someone else will certainly offer them something false. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses target newly arrived refugees. And the prevailing culture inundates them with messages of materialism and entitlement.
- Teenage children of refugees have huge unmet needs for mentoring and adult role-models. As they take on the culture of the US, their parents are not able to provide the guidance they need to navigate coming-of-age. Refugee teens often lack the ability to dream big for their futures, and thus the motivation to apply themselves at school. They have all the gadgets of other teens, but less adult input regarding how to use technology wisely. The morals, methods and mindset of their parents may seem outmoded and irrelevant. They are susceptible to drugs, depression and suicidal thoughts. Bishnu longs to see a “Big Sibs” type program paring native-born American Christians with these kids to build relationship and mentor them.
After talking with Bishnu, I was encouraged that I do have a valid role in ministry to refugees, and that it’s actually not that big of a leap. Even I can manage “hanging out.”
If you are in the Phoenix area and are interested in connecting with the teens of Himalayan Community Mission Church, you can contact Pastor Bishnu Regmi.Himalayan Community Mission Church