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Engaging the Refugee Crisis: An Interview with UnBound

Back in April we had the opportunity to travel to Lesvos, Greece and sit with UnBound’s Kelly Connolly and Laura Pennington—two young women who uprooted their lives in Waco, Texas and said yes to spearheading Antioch Community Church’s response to human trafficking within the refugee crisis. Here is some content that was trimmed from Nations Journal Vol. 2 for the sake of space, but was much too powerful not to share. Enjoy!

How did Antioch initially respond to the refugee crisis?

Laura: Everything at Antioch starts with passionate intercession, then moves into action. We have prayer nights at church where we pray over different areas of the world. We’ve had people praying for the Middle East for years and years and years, communicating the concept of war, refugees, what’s happening. There has been this burden of intercession, and then when [the crisis] started ramping up last summer, we were more aware. When it got to be October, we said, “We have to move.”

Kelly: In October we sent a team of three people along the refugee trail from Germany to Greece to meet with NGOs and see what the scope of the problem was. They all worked for the church and were just trying to determine how to get engaged. After visiting the site and plugging in with various places, we determined that Lesvos was the forefront of the crisis and that there was still such a need for people to respond. That trip was early October. A few weeks later, they came back, brainstormed how to respond, and within a month, our team of six was on the island. We were given two weeks to come, pack up all of our stuff, and stay for three months, having no idea what the island was going to look like, where we were going to plug in, who to plug in with.

The team that I was on was an assessment team. So we would get a grid of the land, ask what the need for the church is. If we’re going to send short-term teams, what’s the best place where we can minister to people, where we can say with word and deed that we love Jesus and Jesus loves these people. We didn’t plug into one space but assessed various locations on the island. We received boats, we passed out hot tea, we gave out bananas, we kicked around soccer balls with kids, we served in camps where we’d do clothes distribution or tea or food. We spent probably a few dozen hours picking up trash. There was a center that a Canadian woman opened for women and children, so we served in the center. When it was cold outside, people were at the port for several hours waiting for the ferry. So we’d come, talk to people, bring them food.

You’ve mentioned that Antioch’s model of response is to “fly the plane and build it as you go.” Has this proven to be an effective model for an ever-changing crisis like this?

Kelly: In talking to high-level UN personnel on the island to Christian NGOs to humanitarian aid organizations that specialize in disaster relief, nobody has ever seen something of this magnitude in Europe before. There’s not this framework of how to enter into developed, European nations and do wide-scale humanitarian aid and disaster relief. I think we’re in good standing with everybody else in that we don’t know what we’re doing but we know that there’s a needed response. People showing up is half the battle. If we were waiting to plan from home, we wouldn’t be engaged with the dynamics and complexities of the crisis. There’s something in showing up that creates space for others to show up and say we will try our best alongside you too.

We’ve pulled together a lot of our best minds within the movement. We’ve pulled in leaders from various churches throughout our network and considered what everybody brings to the table. We’re asking, “What do you have, how can we maximize it, how can we weave it in?” Watching everybody in their different lanes is fun because the body really operates best as the body. I can’t take on all these different pieces, but I can put on my social work hat and think, how do we operate in cross-cultural humility and competency? How do we build systems for supervision or accountability? Everyone’s taking their tiny piece of the puzzle and saying, “I can lay this, if you lay this, if you lay this.”

What is the tipping point in this crisis where helping hurts, where good intentions do more harm than good?

Kelly: We want the only offensive narrative that we’re walking in to be the offensiveness of the Gospel—not our actions, not our dress, not our contact. We can’t underestimate how different a Middle Eastern paradigm/worldview is from a Western paradigm/worldview in terms of integrated spiritual and natural life.

I saw a lot [of lack of awareness] on the shoreline when we were receiving boats. In the summer there were reports of aid workers twisting their ankles, getting hurt, pushing other people out of the way so that they were the ones who were receiving the boats and not someone else. We see people wanting to be on the forefront, wanting to be the one that’s helping, but a lack of self-awareness having unintended consequences.

Laura: If your perception is “me as rescuer, you as damsel in distress” and if your focus is on what you are bringing to the table, there’s a tendency to miss what the real need is. Because you have an idea of what you think the need is.

Kelly: That’s a very American mindset too, “I’m coming in, I have the answer, I have the quick fix.”

Laura: So [instead] let’s come in and say, “I’m here to be with you, to help you, what do you need?”, instead of coming in and saying, “I’m here to fix this need that I’ve seen.” Where I’ve seen hurt happen more is in the presumption of having needs instead of solidarity in finding an answer together.

Kelly: I feel like in Lesvos specifically, there’s such a high turnover rate and [thus] a loss of knowledge. People who are here for two weeks get a good idea, but they’re not asking people before them and they’re not staying long enough for their idea to be realized or sustained. I think the island could look dramatically more efficient and more humane, could protect people’s dignity and rights and well-being, if there was longer aid worker sustainability and higher levels of coordination and unity and leaning towards one another. Dropping some of the organizational focus to say, “We’re all going to own this together. We’re better operating together than operating as fractured.”

Laura: If we’re the experts and we’re coming and going, expertise is getting lost again and again. But if the community’s the expert and the community stays, the community teaches us how to respond well to it.

What types of ways have you seen God moving in the camps?

Kelly: In the camp, the UN has policies that you can’t protheletize, so you can’t explicitly share the Gospel. So we had this interesting dynamic, where people are in the camp, we want to be in the camp, but we want to authentically be ourselves. We want to meet people’s physical needs and also believe that the Kingdom story is that God is freeing up people from oppressive Islam. People who have been in great darkness can now see the light and have hope in Jesus. We want to be able to articulate that while honoring UN policies. So we would serve in the camp but do more direct evangelism, discipleship, and praying for healing outside of camp. We saw crazy things, like entire Iranian families coming to know Jesus. We’d ask people, “Have you had any spiritual dreams?” Our college teams talked to a guy on the ferry from Lesvos to Athens, and they asked, “Have you had any dreams of God?” He said, “Yeah, I dream of a man in white. He would come to me every night for a month. He would say, ‘I see you, I love you, and I know you.’ The man was the most kind man that I’ve ever seen and his eyes were full of love.” So [our team] read passages out of Revelation to this man and were describing Jesus to him. And the man started weeping, saying, “That is my friend, that is the man I’ve been having dreams about.” And they said, “Great, this is what it looks like to have relationship with Jesus. You give him your whole life, and he gives you the fullness of his life back.” And he said, “I want that more than anything.”

You hear crazy stories of this in faraway lands, but it’s happening in Greece. We’re praying over people, seeing backs get healed, migraines instantly gone, people on crutches leave their crutches. There was a month or two where I was like, I’ve never seen the glory of God so vibrantly on display in my life. God was just like, these are my people and I will do everything possible to make myself known to them. Having all these believers say, “You got healed, but that’s not the miracle. The miracle is that Jesus came to give you relationship, he saved you from the sea, he saved you from Afghanistan, you are here for relationship with Jesus. This is our friend, this is our daddy, let us tell you about him.”

Laura: If there is an unprecedented softness to the Gospel it’s because there’s unprecedented brokenness in the Muslim culture. And God draws near to the brokenhearted. To me that makes sense if that is what is happening. From what I’ve heard there has been a greater number of Muslims coming to know Jesus than any other time we know of, at least in the last eight years.

How has God worked on your heart—personally—through the crisis?

Laura: When I was flying on the plane over here, I was like, “God, I don’t know what it’s like to help these people.” We learn so much in social work about how we’re supposed to walk alongside and not put on this you-me rescue mentality, like, “Here I am up here, totally fixed, picking you up, broken.” I still feel called to rescue, but what does rescue look like when it’s not this up-down thing? And Jesus said, “The first thing I did as a rescuer was to relate. When I decided I wanted to rescue you, I left heaven and came to earth and I related for 33 years, died, and brought you back up with me. I am calling you to the island to relate, to get on level with and walk together toward Kingdom.” It’s been this journey of learning how to relate. I felt totally out of place my first couple of weeks here; I had never lived overseas, I didn’t know the language. I thought, “What is it like to be a refugee and not know the language?” I would turn every moment of discomfort in my life when I got here into a place of relating to refugees. When I met my first refugee family, I definitely wasn’t thinking, “I’m this healthy, whole American.” I thought, “I have felt broken, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for you. We’re strangers in a new land together, I absolutely acknowledge that your situation’s worse, but my choice is to relate with you and grieve with you and mourn with you here.”

Kelly: I think something that marked every team was seeing how much of ourselves we saw reflected in refugees. I was praying before we left the island the first time and I had this picture of me holding a mirror. And instead of seeing myself reflected in the mirror, I saw someone with a head covering on. And I felt God say, “Look for it and you will continually see myself and the refugees in your own image.”

“These” people are so much more like me than they aren’t. This is my brother, this is my sister. My dad’s a doctor in the Air Force, so I lived in Europe for two years after 9-11. A lot of my good friends in middle school and high school had parents who were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I saw those nations as being places that stole from people who I loved. I had never met anyone from the Middle East until I began interacting with Iranians or Afghan girls who are saying, “You are my best friend,” or talking to a Syrian family through Google translate. I’ve viewed this entire region of the world as “enemy of war” and these are the very people that Jesus took on flesh with. Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee. Christmas was a really emotional time for me—Jesus was a Middle Eastern baby on the run. I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of babies. How can I as a believer say that I love the man that is Jesus and hate the Middle East? These are his people. This is what he looked like. And yet Americans see this complexion and hair color and we’re fearful. This is the man we love, we should be compelled toward them, not withdrawing away from them.

For the full interview with Kelly and Laura, pick up Nations Journal Vol. 2.


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