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Jesus Come Tomorrow?

Engaging refugees in the city

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Rain drenched my coat as I dragged my heavy plastic container filled with toys and Sunday school lessons into an apartment on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio.

Why am I doing this? I wondered. God, am I in Your will? I was about two and a half years into my journey of working with refugees, and questions like these flooded my mind.

Nepali refugee children work on a Bible project in a cramped apartment in Cleveland, Ohio (Photo courtesy of Eileen Wilson).

Once up the rickety stairs, I daintily tiptoed my way across a living room with more than 50 Nepali Christian refugees packed together on the floor. I then reached a small bedroom where 20 children of all ages greeted me and an interpreter.

This scene repeated itself every week for more than three years as I struggled to find a church willing to offer space for this growing group of new Christians. This particular Sunday I was weary of the routine and wondering if God was really in this work. Did He have a call on my life to work with these vulnerable populations? Was I accomplishing anything?

I didn’t speak Nepali, Arabic, Swahili, Dari, Pashtu, Ka’ren, or any other language that would allow me to communicate with my refugee friends. Could I really share the gospel with the limitations of language, culture, poverty, and trauma looming over me all the time?

Why am I Doing This?

Our lesson that week consisted of my asking questions through an interpreter and the children happily answering “Jesus” to each one.

“To whom did God give the Ten Commandments?”

An emphatic, “JESUS!”

“Who was in the lion’s den?”

A louder, “JESUS.”

“Who was in the garden of Eden?”

A more hesitant, “Jesus?”

I wondered if I was ever going to get through to the children. Then, halfway through our coloring time, one of the younger kids came to me with his face beaming.

Exasperated by my inability to understand, I leaned in to hear Arpan ask in perfect English, “Jesus come tomorrow?” (Photo courtesy of Eileen Wilson)

“Miss Eileen, Miss Eileen.”

“Yes, Arpan? What is it?”

What followed was a smattering of English, Nepali, and a combination of unintelligible words spoken so softly that I had no chance of understanding him unless I bent to his level.

“Miss Eileen, Miss Eileen, my friend, my friend.”

“Who is your friend, Arpan? What’s his name?”

Again I couldn’t understand one word he was trying to say, so I leaned in even closer, making direct eye contact with him.

“What are you saying, Arpan?” I asked, a little exasperated by the lack of space and my inability to understand.

As I leaned in to hear his answer, he asked in perfect English, “Jesus come tomorrow?”

I stood, overwhelmed with God’s answer to my prayer through a child with limited English. “Jesus come tomorrow?” That was God’s answer to my question: Why am I doing this? Jesus come tomorrow—a reminder that our time here is short and our eyes need to be on eternal things.

God So Loved the World

I have worked with refugees in Cleveland for six years; first as a volunteer teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and then, when I was laid off from my corporate job as the director of Refugee Ministries at Building Hope in the City (BHITC).

A Mauritanian woman celebrates passing her U.S. citizenship test (Photo courtesy of Eileen Wilson).

I have wrestled with the refugees’ overwhelming struggles: their lack of language, lack of education, grief, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety over their new life in America. Early in my new journey, I had to decide if I believed that Jesus was the answer to these difficulties. Could He fill the emotional and physical needs that accompany people whom most of the world has forgotten?

Yes, Jesus is the answer. My friends needed physical help, but more importantly, they needed spiritual healing and to know that even though they felt forgotten, God hadn’t forgotten them. He loved them so much that He brought them out of their farms and villages and through their experiences to meet Him in a strange country.

Bringing People to the Gospel

In church we talk about closed countries and countries that persecute Christians. We pray for the Church and earnestly seek God to intervene and protect our brothers and sisters in those countries. We often send missionaries into these dark places to learn the language and build relationships. We hope they plant seeds and see the gospel take root in these difficult places. But the work is hard and dangerous.

We often wrestle with people giving us access to their lives and being careful about what we can and cannot say. We struggle against governments determined to keep the gospel from their citizens.

What if God has a different plan? What if God has decided it’s time for the people to come to the gospel rather than the gospel always going to the people? What if the refugee crisis is part of God’s answer to reaching the nations for Christ?

In the greater Cleveland area, we receive nearly 1,000 refugees each year from 9 of the top 10 countries on the World Watch List, which records the worst countries in regards to Christian persecution. To help meet the needs of these men and women, we train American volunteers to mentor refugee families.

During training, I regularly ask, “Would you like to work with a Sudanese family? A Somalian family? A Bhutanese family? An Eritrean family? What about an Afghani or Iraqi family?” The world is at our doorstep; God has brought the nations to our backyard to build relationships in an open country and create ambassadors for the gospel within the people groups. Will we answer the call?

The Time is Now

Through BHITC’s work in the city and in partnership with Gateway West Church (Southern Baptist Convention) and the Central District of The Alliance, BHITC has fulfilled a longtime dream: to create a safe, loving, and lively place for refugees.

Refugee women enjoy a harvest festival with Eileen Wilson (back center). Photo courtesy of Eileen Wilson

The Hope Center for Refugees and Immigrants, which opened February 2015, was born out of the idea that people need more than sterile social-service organizations; they need a place with staff members who welcome them, love them, and know them.

Volunteers from many church denominations work with refugees to teach them English, help them achieve citizenship, reduce their stress, tutor their children, and help them find better jobs and realize the dreams they had of a better life while sitting and waiting in refugee camps. But a better life isn’t the answer they truly seek; Christ’s love is what draws them to BHITC’s center and to the people who staff it.

Working with refugees doesn’t require you to learn a new language, travel long distances to engage new cultures, or give up your job. Working with refugees is often less than 20 minutes away, not 20 hours away. God is bringing people to our cities, our neighborhoods, and maybe next door.

Many of the volunteers who work with us to serve the refugee communities in Cleveland tell me they had no idea refugees were in their city. Once they took the first step to learn more about the plight of the 59.5 million displaced people across the world, God opened their hearts to what it must feel like to lose everything in an instant. To be forced out of your home, to run with your children to a safe place more than 100 miles away, to have little food and no hope for a future. To feel forgotten by your country and your people—and for them to not care what happens to you. Then to come to a new place where nothing is familiar and to find friendly people who are willing to learn a few words in your language, to learn your name and greet you each time they see you. To hug you and tell you it will be OK.

Refugees often tell us it’s the Christians who help them, who care for them when their own people won’t help. The time is now; the days are short.

* * *

I bent down to Arpan again to answer his question, “Jesus come tomorrow?”

“I don’t know Arpan,” I said, “but if He does come tomorrow, you and I will be celebrating together in heaven.”

Learn More

To learn more about building hope in the city, visit: www.buildinghopeinthecity.org

Read “How You and Your Church can Help Foreigners” by Dave Manske.

3 responses to Jesus Come Tomorrow?

  1. I am an ESL teacher on the West Bank across from New Orleans and have wanted to be a part of this kind of program. Do you know if there are any programs like this in the NOLA area (either CMA or Southern Baptist)?

    My husband, Steve Hall was an Alliance Pastor for many years until God directed us to leave his church in Franklinville, NY and go to Louisiana so that we could become involved with the immigrants there through my teaching ESL. Steve died in March, but I believe there is still some ministry focus I need to be used for in the NOLA area.

    I was so inspired by your story. I feel that a program of this nature may be what is needed in our area. Could you please give me some guidance?

    In my being I am still Alliance, but have joined a church in my neighborhood that is Southern Baptist. It seemed just so right that your ministry is connected to both.

  2. Thank you Ms Wilson for writing this article and bringing back the refugee issue into the churches. Being a so-called Boat Person of the 1979 from Vietnam, I resonated immediately with this story.
    In the mid-1920, after my great-grandmother was prayed for by the C&MA missionaries and immediately cured from her death bed (constant bleeding like the lady who touched Jesus robe in Matthew 9:20), she and my great-grandfather converted to Christianity. Since then, GOD has always provided for and protected us, especially through the many years under the Vietnamese communist regime. I have learned a lot from my Ancestors and beloved Father’s Faith ; and since My Father’s passing in March 1996, I have tried to serve GOD and glorify Him every which way I can. and by doing this:

    2 Timothy 4:2-4New International Version (NIV)

    2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

    I WILL FOREVER BE GRATEFUL TO GOD AND TO THE C&MA AND ESPECIALLY THE MISSIONARIES WHO CAME TO VIETNAM TO SHARE THE GREATEST NEWS OF SALVATION TO OUR LOST COUNTRY!

  3. My heart was and is truly touched by this Eileen. You are a true embassador of Christ. I’m bringing this to the attention of our pastor, hopefully our church can get involved.

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