CLARKSTON, Ga. (BP)–The early morning rain has passed and it’s 9 a.m. on another “Thankful Thursday” as dozens of refugees — in pairs, as families or in groups — stroll up to Clarkston International Bible Church.
Their smiling faces and the bright colors of their native dress belie the personal hardships many overcame for a new start in America. In some cases, they have escaped war, famine, disease, religious persecution and death in countries like Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Somalia, Liberia, Cambodia, Thailand and two dozen others. They are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Coptic Christians and atheists.
Today, they’re coming to learn English at Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC).
While “Thankful Thursday” is a weekly outreach at the multi-ethnic church near Atlanta, this particular Thursday also is “Spiritual Focus Day” for some 230 staff members of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) who — for the second straight year — left their Alpharetta, Ga., offices to minister and share the Gospel with immigrants in Clarkston.
Clarkston, a town of about 7,200 about 18 miles east of downtown Atlanta, has been a designated refugee resettlement site for thousands of legal immigrants pouring into the United States over the years.
For five years now, Phil Kitchin has pastored CIBC, which on the outside — with its red brick and white steeple — resembles any other typical Southern Baptist church across the South. However, it’s anything but.
“CIBC is unique,” Kitchin says. “On Sundays, this is like the United Nations. We have seven different language congregations. We have one English service, but with 20-30 different nationalities in attendance.”
Kitchin says his right-hand man is NAMB Mission Service Corps (MSC) missionary Kevin Riley, who helps minister to Clarkston’s flock of multi-ethnic immigrants and who coordinated NAMB’s recent visit to Clarkston.
“Not only does the community have refugees from all over the world, the local Clarkston schools have students from at least 50 different countries,” Riley said. In the church’s English (as a) Second Language (ESL) class on Thankful Thursdays, dozens of languages are spoken.
“When NAMB’s staff comes, it sends out the clear message that Americans are truly interested in the immigrants,” Riley said. “We’re not here for what we can get out of them. We’re not trying to manipulate them. We want to give them something unconditionally, the Gospel.”
Before this year’s Spiritual Focus Day was over, NAMB’s street evangelism teams would comb apartment neighborhoods around the church, initiating 103 conversations with refugees, sharing the Gospel 57 times, distributing more than 100 tracts in several languages and seeing eight decisions for Jesus Christ.
A 28-year-old man, “Jerrell,” was only one of the eight residents led to Christ.
NAMB’s interim president, Richard Harris, asked Jerrell if he meant it when he prayed to receive Christ. “If you did, and I think you did, your address just changed from hell to heaven,” Harris said. “Isn’t that good? Now you’re my brother.”
While street witnessing was underway, another team of NAMB staffers was on the quad at Georgia Perimeter College using “Soularium” cards as conversation starters to share the Gospel with college students.
“Soularium cards were invented by Campus Crusade for Christ,” said John Ramirez, who directed the project. “There are 50 cards with pictures on them. You scatter them out and ask students to pick three which best describe their lives. In five minutes, college students will tell you the most intimate things about their lives. The cards open up people quickly, leading you to talk to them about Christ.”
Ramirez said his team at the college made 50 presentations, including some to Muslims and Buddhists. A second NAMB team used the Soularium cards at nearby DeKalb Technical College.
NAMB staffers not only shared the Gospel, they also undertook nitty-gritty physical chores as ways to minister to the refugees and make their difficult lives easier.
Donald King headed up a 12-person team who cleaned up some apartments for refugees about to move in at the Lakes and Clarkston Oaks Apartments. On this hot, muggy August day, the work was made more difficult since the previous occupants had not left the apartments in good shape.
As King vacuumed, Jill Noga and Linda Grimes scrubbed down bathrooms and Amy Signaigo washed windows in #490 at the Lakes Apartments, the four agreed on why they had signed up for this duty: to show the love of Christ “to the least of these” because even refugees want and deserve to move into a clean apartment.
Other NAMB employees traveled to Clarkston High School and several local elementary schools to treat teachers to refreshments, take prayer requests and let them know they’re appreciated.
“Because of NAMB coming last year, we have improved our relationships with our area schools, one in particular,” Kitchin said. “Some of the teachers from the school now come to our church and have told me, ‘Before last year, we didn’t think anybody cared about our school.'”
Back at the church, other NAMB staffers cleaned, organized and re-stocked CIBC’s food pantry.
“Every Wednesday we have a food giveaway for the homeless and the refugees. But we can’t keep it stocked,” Kitchin said. “We give food out to anyone who rings the doorbell and we give it away as fast we get it. We can always use more can goods.”
Yet another NAMB team, led by Kendale Moore, scattered out in the CIBC gym among 400 refugees from 15 or more countries, helping them practice their conversational English and telling them Bible stories illustrated by artist Kerry Jackson, another MSC missionary.
In comments to staff after the ministry time, Harris said NAMB’s experiences at CIBC “stretch us. It’s good for us to get out of our comfort zones. That’s how you grow in your faith, by witnessing and sharing. I challenge you to get in other ministries to stretch you even more.”
Emotional at times, Kitchin thanked the NAMB staff for making the trip to Clarkston.
“Thank you for the seeds you have sown that will help us to grow. This place is filled with people from throughout the world who God has brought to us. We just don’t have enough laborers for the harvest. Please remember this place and what you’ve seen. Think about how we try to minister in at least 40 different languages. Our God is a great God and He knows we’re here.
“It’s encouraging that people like you know what we do…. It’s a high-need church and always will be,” Kitchin said. “Every once in awhile, the laborers down here need a rest. We appreciate NAMB’s manpower.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. For more information about Clarkston International Bible Church and its ministries, go to www.cibc-sbc.org.