Encountering the World in Your Own Backyard

It all started when missionaries came to speak. A few years ago, Melrose Baptist Church in Roanoke hosted missionaries who support refugee resettlement to share about their ministry to refugees. What they shared and the passion with which they shared it inspired the members of Melrose to explore ways they could minister to refugees in their own community. Shortly after, they held a “pack the pastor’s office” event as part of state-wide efforts to provide hygiene kits to refugees from Afghanistan who were relocated to military bases in Virginia. Pastor Mark Mofield characterizes these efforts as “dipping their toes in the water,” but these steps prepared them to respond when Friendship House, a local nonprofit that supports refugee families, reached out looking for “Good Neighbor Teams.”

The church identified 12 people to serve on their Good Neighbor Team who would come alongside two Afghan families, supporting them and being good neighbors to them as they became acclimated to their new home. Mark says that was really what opened their eyes to how diverse their community actually was and served as the foundation to doing international missions in their own backyard.

Those new eyes to see their community—and a passion for reaching the international community—led to the meeting that would transform the church. A member overheard someone in Walmart speaking what she thought was Creole (she had served several times in Haiti), but the person was actually a refugee from Congo by way of Uganda speaking French. That person was Pastor Trice, who had become a Christian in a refugee camp in Uganda where he and his family lived for 15 years. During his time there he felt called to ministry, trained with a missionary, and became pastor to several congregations in the refugee camp. As he developed a relationship with Melrose Baptist, he asked if they would be interested in starting a French/Swahili-speaking worship service at the church. The congregation overwhelmingly embraced the service, calling it Ibada, which is Swahili for worship. The intentionally decided together this would not be a “church plant” but a ministry of Melrose Baptist. They combine for one worship service a month, take communion together, and share leadership for that service between the English-speaking and French-Swahili speaking leaders. This ministry, while still young, has become central to the church’s identity. They have fully embraced international ministry in their own back yard, and their church has been blessed by the work they do together.

Does your church feel called to serve international residents in your community? Mark shared a few key steps they took that prepared them to explore this kind of ministry.

Identify partners who are already doing the work.

In Roanoke, those agencies were Catholic Charities (the main refugee resettlement agency there), Friendship House, who trained their Good Neighbor Team, and local government agencies like schools and social workers. Those relationships helped them receive proper training and served as important connecting points to the international community in their church’s back yard.

Be open to changes.

One important lesson has been that the international community in a particular area does not remain static. Just a short time ago, most immigrants to Roanoke were from Asia, but lately the community has transitioned to immigrants from the Middle East and African countries. Developing a relationship with any group of people new to your community will also mean changes in how your church functions.

Look around and don’t be afraid to say “hello.”

Ibada was able to start at Melrose because a music minister was willing to say hello to someone. The church had embraced a culture of open eyes and hearts, so they were primed to see the people in their community that others might not notice. The decision to welcome a stranger needs to happen before you even meet a stranger, and as Mark said, “You can communicate a lot with a smile.”

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to admit when you have made them.

One of the biggest challenges in churches is acknowledging that we didn’t get something right. That reluctance to admit mistakes can lead to an unwillingness to take risks. If a church is going to minister to the international community at home, they are going to make mistakes. None of us are experts at this, and cultural norms can lead to a lot of misunderstanding if we are not aware of them. What they have found is that no obstacle has to become a roadblock, if everyone is willing to admit when a mistake happens and to focus on how to work through it. But the challenges are more than worth it. Mark shared that “At the first combined worship service we did – the tears in people’s eyes as we were joining together different languages and singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ in English and Swahili, and literally people crying, was a powerful moment and a revelation of what the Kingdom of God really looks like.”

If your church is interested in taking a step toward embracing international families in your community, we’d like to connect you with Melrose or other churches that are doing this work well.