Many Central Asian refugees found themselves grounded in one country on the refugee highway, routes often traveled by refugees crossing country borders, in 2015 and 2016 and the grounding continues due to the pandemic. This is the longest missionaries William and Darlene King*, who serve with the International Mission Board, have had with refugees whose journey on the refugee highway is somewhat of a modern-day telling of Homer’s Odyssey.
Up until 2015, refugees would stop for indeterminate periods – some cycling through as if on a turnstile, others for the length of a pregnancy, still others long enough to sink roots into the rich soil.
The recent extended time with refugees has led to increased opportunities for the Kings to share the Gospel and more time for discipleship and leadership training.
The Kings work primarily with two Central Asian people groups. People from one of the groups are not as devout in the faith of their culture and are becoming Christians in greater numbers.
William and Darlene build relationships with refugees through teaching English, and the lessons provide an entry point for sharing the Gospel. Over a series of weeks, they will form “seeker” classes that are a mixture of apologetics and pre-discipleship for people who are interested in learning more.
Finding work is difficult for refugees, so people have free time to study the Bible and are excited about studying, Darlene said.
The believers teaching the seeker classes are a part of a core group of Christians the Kings are investing in through a leadership development program they developed in connection with their church plant.
The leadership development class rotates between teaching theology, systematically teaching books of the Bible and an apologetics-based class. In the apologetics class, they answer questions and objections that arise from students in the seeker classes. They also address questions they receive when they share the Gospel in public parks, where many refugees spend time and sometimes sleep at night.
Questions refugees often ask Christians include, “If God is a loving God, why do we live in these camp conditions? How does a loving God allow these things? If God loves me, why do I suffer?”
William, the elders from the church and members of the leadership class discuss biblical responses to these questions.
Church membership is another tricky issue in refugee communities. Leaders wrestle with how to implement church membership in communities that are in flux. How to handle accountability and the authority of leaders is another consideration.
Conversations in the leadership development program trickle down to the seeker, discipleship and language classes and influence the evangelism efforts of the refugee believers, William said.
Darlene dreamed of and prayed for a believing woman from the more receptive people group who would want to reach women from the more devout Muslim people group.
This dream came true in 2020. A Christian woman invited several women to study the Bible at her house.
Darlene is involved in a mentoring program for refugee women who show leadership potential. The program involves other Christian organizations, and last year they hosted a camp where attendees learned about women in the New Testament and their leadership roles.
The women meet monthly for ministry training. One month they focused on chronological Bible storying, another month spiritual warfare.
“The kind of questions that they’re asking is so amazing,” Darlene said. “One woman said at our first meeting, ‘How do I know who the Holy Spirit is leading me to share the Gospel with, because I’m telling people about Jesus and they’re saying no.’”
The woman wanted to know how to share more effectively and how to listen to the Holy Spirit.
Fifty women usually come to the meetings, but their numbers were restricted due to the pandemic, so they decided to invite only the leaders. This turned out to be a blessing, because the leaders were then empowered to lead groups of women and children, thus encouraging local ownership instead of Western-led groups.
“There are two women who are out leading discipleship groups of other women, and the pastor is empowering them to do that,” Darlene said.
One of the women who attended the training became a Christian six years ago and is the wife of a pastor.
“She stood in front of us, crying and shaking, and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever taught a lesson in front of people,’” Darlene said. “It’s definitely a new thing, and I just think it’s not culturally what they’ve ever done before.”
Women from this culture are often not engaged in teaching groups and are often not out in society pursing teaching opportunities.
One woman began teaching other women who are living in temporary housing after COVID-19 closed their refugee camp.
“She was literally just teaching them everything that she knew, and then she would call her pastor out, and he would teach her something, and she would turn around and teach the group,” Darlene said.
Some women go out into public places and use the Gospel-sharing method they learned in a training and invite people to English classes and Bible studies. Darlene said one of the women often has 20 conversations in an evening and comes away with phone numbers to follow up. She adapts the way she shares the Gospel with each person.
“She’s engaging with them in a way that is so beautiful,” Darlene said.
Continuing the odyssey
Ministering in the Kings’ context isn’t easy, and goodbyes are guaranteed.
“You might meet someone one time and never see them again. Or you might pour your soul into spending every second you can with someone, and then they just disappear, and you hear from them two months later, and they’re in Switzerland or another country in Europe,” Darlene said.
The Kings’ church holds commissioning services for refugees approved for resettlement in other countries.
“The church is constantly sending people out to other countries, and they’re going to these little villages in the middle of Germany, where there’s not another believer,” Darlene said. “They are prepared to study the Bible and hopefully prepared to share with others and start their own churches.”
That’s what the Kings hope to see happen because of their investment. This type of church planting is already happening in other countries in Europe.
“It’s a reverse model of the apostle Paul’s ministry. Paul went to these little places,” William said. “It’s ironic because we’re here, and we’re investing, trying to invest, in the health and knowledge and ability to read Scripture, and we’re watching them go to all of these little places, so it’s kind of a reverse Paulinian model.”
The Kings’ ministry is thriving now, but Darlene encourages others by sharing that the current success took seven years of hard, slow work.