Refugee Project Goes Bust: What Can We Learn?

Somali Blackboard Pic

When she took charge as President of the Missionary Society, Alice suggested a mission project for the congregation—to provide transportation and support for a refugee family from Somalia. Life would be better for the family in Oklahoma. If only it were so simple.

Membership in the Missionary Society, a women’s organization, was considered a status symbol at Prairie Chapel Baptist Church. Though the president is typically nominated by the membership, the pastor had made the decision to recommend Alice, and the membership wholeheartedly confirmed the nomination.  Now Alice was ready to take action.

The project began as a vision of the pastor, who had been following the situation in Somalia with great interest. Sharing his enthusiasm, Alice announced to the congregation, after a meeting of the Missionary Society, of their plan to spearhead the Somali Bantus refugee program.  The whole congregation would be involved in its execution.

Alice set a goal for the congregation—to donate $1,500 to $1,600 per month for the support of a single refugee family. The sum would pay for the Somalian family’s rent, food, child-care needs, clothing, and other needs. The church would provide a furnished apartment and transportation for the family as needed.

“The congregation could imagine these practical necessities. Church members started to envision what their participation would entail. . .Alice contacted Jamie at Interfaith Ministries, an agency that would be arranging transportation of the refugee families to the United States. . .Interfaith Ministries depended on local congregations like Prairie Chapel Baptist Church to be partners in the relocation. The pastor, Alice, and Jamie were all pleased at the animated show of enthusiasm from the church members of Prairie Chapel.”[1]

Twenty people showed up for the orientation meeting.   Jamie taught them about significant cultural differences between North Americans and Somalians. He explained that many Somalians cook over an open fire. At this point, congregation members realized that many of the items they had furnished the apartment with—ovens, can openers, spatulas, and other utensils, were useless.

As Jamie tried to explain the simplicity of Somali life, their preference for stews and their inability to speak English, he sensed fear coming over the faces of the twenty women present.

Jamie assured them that there would an interpreter present, and also stressed the great need for the congregation to visit the family. The congregation’s connection was their lifeline to American society. To conclude the orientation meeting, he showed a film depicting life in Somalia.

At the second orientation, Jamie passed out a sign-up sheet for volunteers to help in practical ways: teaching the family basic hygiene, showing them how to use a phone, helping them fill out job applications, teaching about American customs. This time only five people showed up.

Finally, “the Somalian family arrives at the airport—a young mother of three carries one small bag; her baby’s diaper has not been changed since the family left New York City. All the way to Oklahoma, the family has not understood one word, nor have they been understood. The only greeters from the church are the pastor, the pastor’s spouse, Alice, and a young couple.”

What started out as 300 “invested” members had been reduced to five. “Alice. . .became the primary caretaker for this disoriented family. She was often alone in her efforts. People had given money, but not of their lives and their time.”[2]  What can we learn?

5 Lessons

  1. Let leadership emerge from below. If the Missionary Society had nominated its own President, instead of relying on the pastor’s recommendation, they might have felt more investment in her vision.
  2. Start with a vision, but verify it with the group. The pastor’s vision of serving the Somalians might have been perfect for this group, but he failed to check with them first. This is disempowering to say the least.
  3. Start small. Obviously, this congregation is new to refugee work. Adopting a family has high maintenance costs ($1,500 per month, plus volunteers) and might be too grand at this point.
  4. Set realistic expectations. It may be too much to expect widespread involvement from Prairie Chapel members for a long time.  Build slowly.
  5. Build partnerships whenever possible. Perhaps the group could join with another, more experienced church or agency for its first refugee project. There’s much to learn.



[1] Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Prelude to Practical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 28-29.

[2] Stevenson-Moessner, 26, 30.

Photo:  Hawa Abdi Center, UN Photo, 9.25.13.  Flickr Creative Commons.


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