The water tastes different in Oak Ridge. The sounds outside are harsh. Shouting matches and profanities are common. These are daily realities in urban, government-subsidized housing developments like Oak Ridge. On most nights, however, a different tune resounds amid the discord. Two men, with large chests and thick mustaches, cheerfully discuss the latest Premier League soccer match...in Arabic. One used to be a police officer in Baghdad, the other a school teacher. Both now live, work, and discuss soccer in a land not their own. Fleeing terrorism, they ended up on our doorstep, and not alone. Hundreds of refugees just like them live in Oak Ridge: Iraqi, Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Somali, and Sudanese.
It was here in Oak Ridge I met my friend Ahmad. Our first encounter was brief. His wife had been attending the ESL (English as a Second Language) class that my church started for our refugee neighbors. He drove by to pick her up, shake my hand, and express his deep gratitude for our church’s service. His English was quite good; his hospitality was better. Soon, Ahmad began inviting me and some of our ESL volunteers for lunch after class. During those lunch meetings we began telling him about the Jesus of the Bible. He was open to spiritual conversations from the start and already quite knowledgeable about how the Bible and the Qur’an differed in their portrayals of Jesus. Though interested in our friendship, Ahmad did not believe our Gospel. For months we continued to teach English to Ahmad’s wife, and she continued to teach us about every type of Iraqi food under the sun. My conversations with Ahmad grew deeper. Sometimes I left them encouraged, thinking he was on the brink of belief. Other times, I left infuriated by his indifference toward the Gospel of grace.
God was kind. Several months into our friendship I received a text message from Ahmad. “Taylor,” it said, “I became Christian recently, Thanks To the Lord.” New life! Praise God! My friend Ahmad will soon be a citizen of the United States, but he is already an eternal citizen of Christ’s Kingdom.
A 21st Century Reality
The nations are at the doorstep of most urban and suburban churches in the United States. The U.S. is the top refugee resettlement nation on the planet. Over 3 million refugees have resettled in the United States since 1975. These people make up a noteworthy segment of our society, and more seek safety inside our borders every year. These precious individuals, made in the image of God, have endured great trials and found physical salvation through the common grace of our nation. The majority of them, though, still need the eternal salvation offered through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus commands His followers to make disciples of all nations, and He has shown us in the Scriptures that Heaven will be filled with saints of “every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9). That God has brought previously-unreached people groups into our very own neighborhoods should stir our hearts toward loving service and Gospel proclamation. The truth is that many of these refugees are lonely and weary in this strange land. The church is called to love these people and introduce them to a Savior who calls them friends and gives them rest.
Political outcry coupled with a lack of neighborly love often characterize the contemporary church. Brothers and sisters, these things ought not be so. The refugee populations in our midst are a great field of harvest for Christ’s Kingdom. It is amazing how easily cross-cultural friendships result from simple acts of kindness. In turn, it is amazing how those same cross-cultural friendships point us to Jesus.
Friendship with my new brother Ahmad has revealed to me many of my biases, blind spots, and cultural sins. Likewise, it is a blessing to watch the Gospel reshape his heart and challenge his own cultural comforts. The American church stands to learn from our refugee brothers and sisters, and we would be foolish to miss out on their friendship due to fear, ignorance, or indifference.
Engaging our refugee neighbors is not rocket science; it begins with tangible, consistent acts of kindness followed by speaking the Gospel truth in love. My friend Ahmad has told me that he feels the Lord brought me to him. I trust this is true. But the Lord also brought him to me, and He’s brought millions more like Ahmad to cities across America. Church, let’s reach out in love and watch our God bring redemption to those He’s brought to us.
*All names of people and places have been altered for anonymity.