Although John Barnett spent 13 years overseas, at times he feels like he’s never left the mission field. That’s because Barnett works with immigrants from around the world as the director of Refuge Louisville.
“What we’re doing here is so similar,” said Barnett, whose wife, Rebekah, volunteers for the ministry, leading cross-cultural training. “You have to be able to step in between both worlds. That’s been exciting. It’s actually easier for me to be with internationals because we spent so much time overseas.”
Founded in 2012, the ministry helps refugees get resettled in Louisville. Part of its emphasis includes encouraging churches to organize teams of six to 12 members who can form long-term relationships with immigrants.
Refuge Louisville is based in the building that used to house Lynn Acres Baptist Church on the city’s south side. Three international congregations affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention also meet there.
Among its services are helping refugees learn English as a second language; holding weekly kids clubs featuring Bible stories, games and crafts; helping refugees practice English conversation; doing artisans training to help Nepali women produce and sell clothing, jewelry and other items; computer classes; and offering job search assistance.
Since becoming director, one of Barnett’s main objectives has been encouraging churches to adopt a refugee family and become some of the first people to welcome them to America. To accomplish that goal, Refuge Louisville offers “Welcome Team Training” at its headquarters every other Thursday.
“I call it intra-church,” Barnett said. “Everything we do comes out of the local church and feeds back into the local church. There’s no need for us to exist if the local church is not involved. Ultimately, it’s going to be about people coming to the Lord. We need to have a way for them to be discipled.”
This effort has paid off. During the past six months, the ministry has trained 42 welcome teams. Last fall they helped 23 families, which boosted the total for 2016 to 36 refugee families receiving assistance.
The ministry helped more than 20 families the first four months of 2017, with a goal of 60 for the year.
Refugee ministry is a growing emphasis for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, according to the convention official who oversees this initiative.
Coy Webb, whose work as disaster relief director for the Mission Mobilization Team has given him considerable experience in working with refugees overseas, said he would like to see Refuge Louisville’s work multiplied across the state.
At present, a community group in Owensboro—with key help from Bellevue Baptist Church—hopes to have a program in place by this fall. In late November, the KBC will host a two-day workshop for all Kentucky Baptist churches on community mapping and refugee engagement.
“We want to move from the Louisville area, which has been the strongest part of our work, and get more involved as refugees arrive,” Webb said. “Those first few months are so vital to building relationships. It becomes much tougher if you wait six to nine months.”
Not only is it right to reach out and share the love of Christ with refugees, Webb said, it helps churches fulfill the mission of telling people about the gospel. The recent influx of people from such places as Somalia, India and Cuba mean that Kentucky Baptists have an opportunity to reach population groups where it isn’t always possible to send missionaries, he added.
“We think the welcome church is a great model to have initial contact with refugees,” Webb said. “Our prayer is churches will want to stay involved with them beyond that initial three to six months.”
Ironically, the politically-charged nature of immigration has awakened more churches to the need for ministering to refugees. While it has stimulated some hateful comments on social media lately, Barnett said it has also created more interest among Christians about getting involved.
Part of Refuge Louisville’s mission is to raise awareness and tear down irrational fears some people have of immigrants, Barnett said.
One reason he said churches should get involved is the experience he had this spring an Algerian immigrant whom Barnett led to Christ a year ago. On Good Friday, the new believer and John spent two hours with another immigrant, discussing the Bible and answering his questions.
“I could tell the Holy Spirit was working on his heart,” Barnett said. “He said, ‘For the first time I’m realizing the Bible isn’t just a story about some people. It’s God’s story.’ The next Sunday, he said, ‘I’m ready to follow Christ.’ We’re confident his wife will become a believer too.”