Story by Heidi Shoemaker
For several years, Ohio Conference's Akron First church has actively served refugees from Burma, Thailand, Rwanda, the Congo, Uganda and Kenya who have settled in the community.
Members help these families obtain household furnishings, assist them in filling out forms and provide driving lessons. Many refugees have become a part of church life, enrolling their children in the Mayfair Christian School in Uniontown and participating in Adventurer and Pathfinder programs. The congregation hosts social gatherings, baby and wedding showers and conducts hospital visits and baptisms. This year they financially supported two refugee students attending Great Lakes Adventist Academy (Mich.).
Bill Levin, pastor of Akron First, shared details about this growing ministry with Terri Saelee, North American Division coordinator for Adventist Refugee and Immigrant Ministries. “She suggested a ‘Refugee Awareness Sabbath’ to help more of our church family become aware of the unique challenges and needs refugees have as they transition into a new land and culture. Utilizing her idea, we extended an invitation for our refugee brothers and sisters to help us get to know them and their plight a little better,” Levin says.
During Sabbath School, refugee children told young people what life was like in a refugee camp and the changes that took place upon arriving to the U.S. Saelee went to the Junior/Earliteen class and shared a “Loss Simulation” exercise to help young people wrestle with the idea of the very real loss most refugees face—the loss of family members, possessions and homes.
“[Saelee] had my students pretend that war broke out and bombs were falling. She gave them three minutes to write down four people they would take with them, four documents they would take, four favorite things and four favorite places [each on a separate piece of paper],” shares Sabbath School teacher Susan Kirschbaum. “After the three minutes, she asked them to delete one item from each category, and while they were doing that, she quietly asked me to go around and randomly remove a few papers from each kid’s stacks.”
She continues, “They were really upset—‘You took my mom!’ or ‘You took my grandma!’” and added, “I was the ‘government,’ and though they had done their best at making decisions with what they had, they had now lost control. That’s what a refugee’s life is like. It was an eye opener for everyone.”
Worship was filled with refugee friends sharing music from their native homeland, while three adults gave personal testimonies about families being detained in refugee camps. As they shared stories, the congregation was visibly moved and heartbroken for them and their struggle.
After the service, church members completed commitment sheets addressing specific things each person could do to assist and bless refugees in the community.