Earlier this year Spectrum Magazine published an article in the “Migrant Journeys” section by Pastor Will James titled “Paradise Valley Refugee Assimilation Project.” In it, Pastor James described the work his church was doing with the local refugee community. This quarter Spectrum has published numerous thought-provoking essays on the role of the Church in the community, but most have been theoretical. Since this week’s lesson is on “Urban Ministry in the End Times,” the editors thought it would be worthwhile to have a commentary that elaborated on one church’s concrete, and very inspiring, urban ministry.
In 2011, prompted by the desire to help the refugees in your area, you began offering English-language lessons and opened a thrift store. Can you explain how these two are connected and how they benefit the refugee community?
When we found the refugees and learned of their needs, we discovered that they needed to spend 35 hours a week in a combination of English-language classes and work experience. So we opened a thrift store as a place where we could offer work experience hours. We are looking for ways to open other microenterprise endeavors to have other ways to offer work experience as well.
Working either as a volunteer or on a work/study program through the local colleges provides the refugees with the opportunity to gain valuable retail experience which they can put on their resumes when looking for full-time jobs.
The Thrift Store benefits the refugees by providing work experience for some, but it also provides affordable clothing, household items, and furniture for all, including the community around our church. The volunteers have opportunity to share about our ministry and about our God as they visit in the store with the customers. It also provides around $25,000 a year toward our ministries.
Some of the funds from our thrift store are helping to sponsor 17 children of refugee families at our local San Diego Academy.
You have also added other elements to your community services, including a community garden and food boxes for needy families. Tell us about these and how they are connected to the whole package of services.
We found the refugees often struggle with depression, so we started a garden where they could get their hands into the soil and find healing for mind and body. It has been miraculous to see how getting out in the garden really does help with their depression. They begin to sing and chatter together in the garden, and the depression lifts.
We are not here just to teach refugees English but also to literally become their family in a new country and minister to them and love them. We nurture them, helping them to learn the lessons we would have taught our children on how to related socially, physically, and culturally in their new land.
The community garden provides food for the refugees, and recently they have begun to sell their organic produce to our community, providing a small source of income as well.
We currently distribute over 10,000 lbs. of food and 400 articles of clothing each week in our community. We prepare 30-40 lb. boxes of food Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for about 30 of our refugee families who are studying English and another 10 boxes of food for our academy families who are struggling.
You have said that since becoming involved in the refugee ministry, your church has become transformed. Can you tell us about that?
I have discovered that when members are actively involved in serving someone who can never repay them for their service, it changes how the member faces life. It gives a whole new perspective on what being a Christian really is all about. Our eyes get turned away from ourselves and onto those who need our help. There is no time or desire to parse the latest theological arguments, to judge or criticize what brother or sister “so and so” is doing or not doing right.
When we are actively serving together with God, it consumes all of our time and energy, and there is no time for the insignificant debates the enemy of our souls loves to get us sidetracked into. The judgmental attitude disappears and is replaced with a loving acceptance.
On any given Sabbath, you will find 50-75 non-members in attendance because we have become a loving, caring, safe place where God can bring his children. We have Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and yes, even Atheist, people attending and feeling welcome in our church.
We have over 60 different nationalities attending church together and regularly translate our services over FM headsets into Arabic, French Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Laotian, and Spanish.
You are also averaging 30-50 baptisms a year with no public evangelism, a statistic every pastor would aspire to. Do you think this is achievable by other urban churches, and do you have a blueprint others could follow?
It is very achievable. Just last Sabbath, we welcomed five new members into our fellowship. I am not saying that every church must be involved in refugee ministry although it is certainly open to many more churches, and it is a wide open field in most of the cities of America today. I do have a strong conviction that every church must find its reason for existence and must become relevant to the community in which it exists. Church must be more than just members attending church on Sabbath morning! Church is fulfilling the Gospel Commission to "GO."
I have just completed a book titled The Joys of Partnering with God: The Story of a Church That Did. While it tells the story of the Paradise Valley ministry, I hope it will inspire other churches tofind their ministries and begin to partner with God in loving service. The premiseof the book is this: “If God shows you a need, it is because He expects you to meet that need, and if you will step out in faith to accomplish what He has shown you needs to be done, He will provide the resources to accomplish the task.”
The book should be in print by December 1, 2016, and will be available on our ministry’s web page, www.FriendshipsForHope.org, or wherever books are sold.
What are the greatest challenges you've faced with these projects, and what have been the most rewarding aspects? What are your plans for the future?
Multicultural ministry has challenges: language, culture, and social issues certainly being among them.
Probably the greatest challenge is the financial. In the past five years, God has proved faithful and has provided. We have spent over $1,000,000 in our ministry to refugees! We don’t know how He is going to sustain that, but we try not to dwell on that; instead, we continue to do our ministry. While we are a rapidly growing vibrant church, the vast majority of our new members are extremely poor. This impacts the church in many ways as we endeavor to help these families without bankrupting the church in the process, but God is faithful and continues to provide the resources as we face the needs.
We are not out actively soliciting funding; we are depending upon God to do His part and are actively doing our part. Our focus must remain on what He is asking us to do in meeting the needs of the people He has brought to us. We greatly appreciate those around the world whom God has impressed, who are monthly supporting our ministry by donating on our web page!
Our future plans are to continue to walk through doors as God opens them! Right now that appears to be the Muslim community in addition to the many other refugee communities we are serving. God appears to be opening the doors with the Muslim community; we are currently studying the Bible with 75 Muslim families and working in the local Muslim Mosques, sharing our health message with Health Expos.
The Quran instructs its readers to search out “The People of the Book” if they have questions. This is understood by Muslims to be the Writings of Moses and the Gospels. What most Christians do not realize is that of the 25 prophets in the Quran, 24 are Biblical prophets; only Mohammed is not. The Quran highly respects Jesus, and the Muslims are looking forward to Jesus’ soon return. We are excited that God is bringing these people to us and fulfilling the words of E. G. White in Evangelism:
A Means of Extending the Work to All Nations—God would be pleased to see far more accomplished by His people in the presentation of the truth for this time to the foreigners in America than has been done in the past.... As I have testified for years, if we were quick in discerning the opening providences of God, we should be able to see in the multiplying opportunities to reach many foreigners in America a divinely appointed means of rapidly extending the third angel’s message into all the nations of earth. God in His providence has brought men to our very doors and thrust them, as it were, into our arms, that they might learn the truth, and be qualified to do a work we could not do in getting the light before men of other tongues. (570.2)
It is God who is bringing the refugees to us! We need to stop fighting what God is doing and accept and love these refugees!
We recently baptized our first Muslim woman, and she is actively sharing her love for Jesus with her family and friends, both here and back home in her homeland.
What Muslims don’t know or understand is the great love God has for them and the gift God gave to them through Jesus when He came to die for their sins. When they catch a glimpse of this forgiveness, they become very interested because their religion is a religion of works, and they do not have the assurance of salvation which we know. When we have the privilege of sharing God’s gift to them, they respond with enthusiasm and excitement!
We are attempting to be faithful to God, and simply go through the doors He opens before us! It is exciting to see what He has done since we began this walk, and we are looking forward to what He will lead us to do as we are faithful to Him.
We invite you to visit our web page and learn more about what God is doing through us, His faithful members here at Paradise Valley. Five different videos have been prepared by others at their cost about our ministry which you can view on our web page: www.FriendshipsForHope.org.
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