I remember seeing the videos during church about being a part of the refugee ministry at Cedar Springs. I was a college student at UT and had a busy lifestyle. I was taking 18 hours on the norm, juggling a couple of jobs, involved in a campus ministry, and not to mention I tried to do my best to stay in touch with my family, boyfriend, 5 roommates, and other friends. At Cedar Springs, I went to Sunday School, regular service, and I had even started volunteering some Sundays in the nursery. I did a good job of keeping my schedule full and I thought that God was pleased with that.
However, each time the refugee videos would play at Cedar Springs, something would tug on my heart (that something was a Someone–the Holy Spirit). I avoided His calling, and honestly, I was ok with it. Weeks and months passed. As I continued to feel that random tug on my heart again, I decided to meet with Almaz to discuss potential involvement with a refugee family. At this point, all I knew about refugees was that they had left their country to go somewhere else.
After our meeting, Almaz suggested I pray about which family to get involved with. I did so, and offered to her that I would like to befriend a Middle-Eastern family with two young children. (I have a heart for kiddos and hope to work with them one day in my occupation.) However, Almaz had been praying for me as well, and she suggested that I meet with a different family. A Middle-Eastern family consisting of a single mom, her daughter (who was my age), and son (who was a year younger than me.)
Trusting the Lord and Almaz, I agreed to her suggestion. We chose a day to meet with the family for my initial introduction to them. As I walked away from that meeting with Almaz, I can remember my thoughts so vividly. “Maria, what in the world did you get yourself into?! You don’t have ANY Middle-Eastern friends! Are you crazy? You are an introvert and now you expect this family to like you? You know ZERO Arabic. Are you sure you have time for this? What if this is too much and you need to back out?” I tried to diminish the thoughts and did a little research on Arabic culture.
Although I am a Greek-American myself, I knew nothing of Arabic culture and very little about the tensions between America and Arabian countries. However, as I did my own research, I told myself I would have an open mind as I befriended these people. I wanted to love them, even if I really didn’t even know what that looked like practically.
The day came for Almaz and I to meet with the family. We went to their house and had a nice, yet awkward experience. I would say I was the main reason for the awkward-ness; sometimes it’s inevitable upon first introductions. They served us Arabic tea (I didn’t even like tea) and my introverted-self tried to be as comfortable and friendly as possible. Thankfully Almaz did most of the talking and as our time together closed, I set up some dates to meet with them to show them around Knoxville.
The first few times we met continued to be awkward. I can remember awkward silences and many conversations about the one thing that we all loved (Middle-Eastern food). I had no idea what these people thought of me and hoped I seemed like a nice, American girl?? I tried to learn some Arabic and messed up many, many times. We did some “assimilation/new city” activities together like applying for jobs, teaching them about America’s technology system, and discussing resources Knoxville had to offer. Over time, I started to naturally enjoy going to meet with this family, but I would still feel like it was time to go after an hour or an hour and a half was up. I felt pressured to want to share the Gospel with them and slightly sad if our conversation about Jesus went nowhere and was cut off. But I kept showing up…every week…because what had started out as a “I’m helping these people” thing turned into a, “I really like being with these people.”
As our relationship grew, I wanted to share more of myself with them. I introduced them to my boyfriend, Tyler, who I was sure they would like more than me (he’s the extrovert). Tyler and I started praying regularly for this family; we found joy in laying aside our structured schedule, and carving out time for them. The Lord softened our hearts and humbled us. We shared with them our embarrassing stories, our mess ups, our fears, and our celebrations. We laughed at ourselves and we shared lots of laughs with them. We fell in love with them. They changed from “Muslims” to “Image bearers of Christ.” We told them how we saw Christ’s character traits in them because He made them for Himself. We wanted to pray for them. We wanted to visit them. We wanted to share them with our friends and family. We wanted to spend our time and money on them. We were overjoyed every time we spent with them and we wanted to tell everyone about it.
They became interested in Christianity and wondered why we didn’t act like the other “American Christians” they knew. We were interested in Islam as well…and we let them share their faith and discussed things in a lovingly manner with them. Honestly, I think this took them for a loop at first. We never, ever tried to shove Jesus on them and the Holy Spirit just brought about conversations about the Gospel in which Tyler and I tried to be the best mouthpiece for the Spirit as we could. We didn’t say things perfectly, but we trusted God.
As Tyler and I spent more time with this family, the Holy Spirit created the most beautiful and mutual agape I could ever tell you about. As we tried to give them our best love, we weren’t ever blind to the selfless love that they showed us as well. It’s the kind of love that quickly reminds me of Jesus. That family introduced us to another Arabic family who we soon became close friends with and over time, learned to love as our family as well.
It’s been over three years now since our first meeting and I can’t begin to explain to you all the joys we’ve shared with these refugee families. Never would I have imagined that a Muslim woman, who is as close as a sister now, would ask me to be in the room when she delivered her first male child. Upon our first interactions, I wouldn’t have thought that with these families we would share Christmas and Easter celebrations, birthdays, basketball lessons, and baby showers…engagements (Yep, Tyler and I are currently engaged and they are in our wedding party!) and English lessons…so much laughter and sometimes some tears. But most of all just many times of “being” with one another—dining together—and sharing conversation. I have learned more about Jesus being with these people than I have being with most American Christians. Being their friend (and now I consider them family) has taught me how to love, share my faith, and pray earnestly. I would give my life for them.
I remember Steve Moldrup telling us in Sunday School that one of the best things we could do was to give our lives away for the sake of Christ. I had thought that in all of my busyness, I was giving all I had. Little did I know; I was giving all I had for myself—my pleasures. So I decided to try and “help the Lord.” Little did I know, I was trying to earn sanctification. When I finally chose to give myself away for Christ, for the sake of the Gospel, is when I truly found my life.
“So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:8