NASHVILLE (BP) – Pastor Terry Dale Hudgins was in chapel at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary 27 years ago when he thought he heard God’s call to international missions.
“I heard a foreign missionary speak, and he talked about knocking on a hut and the children yelled ‘It’s the Jesus man,’” Hudgins said. “And I just felt God was calling me to become a Jesus man. Being diabetic, the mission board turned me down, so I thought I’d misheard what God would want me to do.”
Decades later, as the world prepares to accept thousands of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, Hudgins is seeing God’s call realized as he directs the Nashville World Outreach Partnership, a refugee and immigrant ministry based at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in a diverse community with 20 nationalities and languages.
“We were just talking about we need to get ready for Afghanistan, because more than likely there’ll be some making their way to Nashville,” Hudgins said. “We’re just assuming there will be because of when the Kurdish population was brought to America (in 1996), most all the Kurdish people ended up in Nashville, and we have the largest population of Kurdish in the country.
“We don’t know that they are coming here, but we’re going to certainly prepare as though they are coming. Then we’ll see what happens.”
In addition to Tusculum Hills Baptist, the partnership is comprises Forest Hills Baptist Church in suburban Brentwood and the downtown Nashville First Baptist Church. Both Forest Hills and Nashville First contribute to the ministry financial gifts, volunteers and administrative support. The Nashville arm of Urban Promise International and Legacy Mission Village are among community-based partners.
“Tusculum is centrally located to all the refugees and immigrants coming into Nashville. … Just about everybody on Nolensville Road uses the big blue neon cross we have as the landmark,” Hudgins said. “Even when we meet Muslim individuals, they all know about the big blue cross.”
Tusculum Hills hosts several international congregations, including Zomi from India, Karen from Burma and Thailand, Chinese and Sudanese. The most recent addition is a Spanish congregation birthed in cooperation with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
Forest Hills, about 10 miles west of Tusculum Hills, began volunteering in Tusculum’s ministry about 10 years before the partnership was birthed in 2017, said Chad Mize, Forest Hills associate pastor of teaching, missions and evangelism.
“God opened doors there to where we began co-laboring in ministry,” Mize said, beginning with a summer international children’s choir camp that morphed into the Children’s Freedom Choir that meets weekly.
“God opened door after door after door,” he said. “… It’s been amazing to see people come to Christ.”
Sharing the Gospel is the partnership’s ultimate goal, but Hudgins describes the outreach as a marathon that begins with building relationships, providing education, food and clothing, and includes help in basic life skills that refugees need to survive in a foreign land, such as navigating government offices, medical facilities, utility companies and apartment living. Volunteers from partnership churches help in all areas of the ministry.
“Everything we do, that is our end goal is to share the Gospel and then enable them to share the Gospel with their family and friends, whether they’re here or they get to go back to Burma or Thailand or Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan,” Hudgins said.
Frank Lewis, senior pastor of Nashville First Baptist, said partnering in the ministry helps the church fulfill scriptural mandates to help those in need.
“From the Old Testament, we are reminded that God’s people are to treat the foreigner in our midst with care because once we were foreigners in a strange land,” Lewis said. “By ministering to these individuals who are refugees, we are caring for the hungry, naked, and neglected stranger in our midst. When we do this faithfully, Scripture says we are doing it unto Christ.
“Toward that end our Missions Committee has committed a very generous amount of money from our Missions Budget,” Lewis said. “We continue to support the Cooperative Program as our primary missions budget line item, but with this international mission field in our backyard, we have prioritized this ministry as a critical need.”
In preparing for Afghan refugees, the partnership will first look for a leader or pastor who knows the culture and speaks the various Arabic dialects.
Mize sees opportunity in the partnership to use all of the gifts God has placed in the church body.
“It’s been a joy to link arms with Tusculum and with First Baptist, and it’s just neat to see how God uses all of our gifts as churches,” Mize said, “and to see the Gospel go to the nations who God created and for whom He died and longs to redeem, from every tongue, tribe and nation.
“It’s the heart of God, and we want to mirror His heart in the way we serve our neighbor.”
Hudgins believes refugee and immigrant ministry is accessible to many churches, even those with limited resources.
He wants others to know that refugees are here legally, and have passed a detailed vetting and application process through the U.S. government.
He describes refugees as hard workers who have fled violence and simply need friends who can help them navigate life in their new home. Many are not familiar with such things as changing lightbulbs and securing utility service.
Tusculum Hills often relies on children of refugee and immigrant families as interpreters, as they are enrolled in English classes and are also familiar with native dialects. Google translates is also helpful, Hudgins said.
“There are internationals in every community, for the most part,” Hudgins said. “It’s so simple. If they see that you care, they’ll open up and you can find out what their needs are. We’ve found that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“It’s taken a long time to earn their trust. We’ve had one of our Kurd children who is now a young adult tell us she wants to go back to Thailand to the refugee camps and tell others about Jesus. They can reach people that we never will.”