ST. LOUIS – Friendship is the focus of the new “Good Neighbor Initiative” established by the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association. The Initiative seeks to match Missouri Baptist families with refugee families new to the area.
“The reality of increasing numbers of refugees,” Darren Casper, associate executive director of St. Louis Metro Association, said, “from war-torn countries with little more than the shirt on their backs, makes it important for us to connect with them in love.”
When Casper served in the Bevo area of south city, he met Mark Akers, founder and executive director of Oasis International (Oasis). This year, Oasis has worked with more than 4,000 refugees from 35 countries. “When I saw the work that Oasis was doing,” Casper said, “I was burdened with the need to help the church befriend these refugees.”
According to Casper, Good Neighbor partners with Oasis to introduce and match qualified families with refugee families. “Church members who are interested complete an application,” Casper said. “Then, we follow up with a call to their pastor and a background check.”
Good Neighbor volunteers are asked to participate in a 90-minute training held at Oasis, 5035 Gravois, on the second Saturday of the month. At the training, the first visit is discussed as well as various religions practiced by the refugees and different cultures. The volunteer receives the name of their family and a welcome basket to present to the refugee family.
The welcome baskets were funded by a special love offering by Missouri Baptists at the annual Convention held in October. Each basket includes household items, a rice cooker, a fan or a blanket depending on the time of year and other helpful items necessary to begin a new life in a new country as well as gifts for the children.
“The baskets funded by the special offering are making a difference for many refugees. We are grateful for this demonstration of love,” Caspar said. “We are asking church members to present the baskets at the first meeting and then to visit the refugee family once a month and to report back with needs of the family and to tell us how to pray for them.”
Denise Rhoades and her husband, Tom, members of Canaan Baptist Church, have become family for their young refugee family. “We are friends with a young couple from Iraq,” Denise said. “They came here from California because he couldn’t find work and it was so expensive.”
Denise said that in Baghdad, he was an electrical engineer, but currently in St. Louis, he is working as a valet. “She is pregnant,” Denise continued, “and she is due in January. The ladies of Canaan are planning a baby shower for her. She is excited about the shower and she has accepted us as family.”
“You can imagine how difficult it is to be having a first baby and to be without your mom or aunts,” Denise explained. “We’ve talked about what they will need for the baby and how to get the items. Also, they went with us to the Bethlehem St. Louis at Canaan and it included the manager, cross and empty tomb. We’re taking little steps as friends.”
Matt Clark, pastor of discipleship at the Church at Affton, and his family have friended a family with several children from Syria. “They are Kurdish and had to flee Iraq. They lived in a refugee camp for four years.”
Clark was able find a soccer team for two of the boys. “I take them to play each week,” Clark said. “As I was watching at the last practice, I was overwhelmed,” he said, “I watched them enjoying the game and thought about the fact that only months ago, they were in a refugee camp.”
Clark also described a trip to the Way of Lights Christmas display with his family and the refugee family. “One of the young ladies who speaks English better, asked questions about Jesus.”
Clark and Rhoades both rely on Google translator on their phones to communicate. “We also use a lot of charades,” Clark said. “We are able to work it out.”
“Engaging people is the heartbeat of Mark 12:31,” Clark said. “Thousands of refugees are coming to St. Louis and it gives us the opportunity to be missionaries without leaving the country. We just want to create an environment to share the gospel through developing relationships.”
Denise agreed. “We can see God working in this ministry and we just join where He is working. We are called to be friends and everyone wants a friend.”