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She forged lasting family ties in opening her home to refugees

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–Fifteen years ago a family was born. It’s a different kind of family, but a family nonetheless.

Alberta Gilpin, who was then director of Missouri Woman’s Missionary Union, welcomed Tudor and Maria Rafa into her home in April 1986. The Rafas were refugees who had fled their native Romania to escape a communist dictatorship. They left their two small children with relatives.

Gilpin had enjoyed helping resettle two Vietnamese families through the Missouri Baptist Convention staff and her church. As she prepared to move into a new home in Jefferson City, which had more living area than she needed, she decided she wanted to use it for ministry.

So she notified the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) that she was interested in sponsoring a family. When she read a case study on the Rafas, “there was no doubt in my mind who I wanted to sponsor.”

When Tudor and Maria arrived, they spoke almost no English. But a Romanian couple from Jefferson City helped in the early days, and the Rafas immediately applied themselves to learning the language.

Alberta put labels on household items to teach them the words. “I think that language is never a problem when you want to communicate,” Gilpin said.

She recalled their first grocery shopping trip. “We got to the meat counter, and I made the sounds of the animals. We provided a lot of entertainment at the grocery store!”

Right away, the Rafas and Alberta started working on getting the couple’s children out of Romania. After a year and a half, they finally got word that son Calin and daughter Ramona would be allowed to leave.

“When we left for New York, we didn’t know for sure the children would be on the plane,” Alberta recalled. “We went on faith, trusting they would be.

“That was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life when they walked through that door. That reunion reminded me of what I think heaven is going to be like — what it will feel like when we’re welcomed home by the Father.”

The Rafa family lived with Alberta for another three years before moving to their own home. Alberta bonded with the children just as she had with their parents. “They’re my grandkids,” she said proudly.

Gilpin and the Rafas collected a lot of memories during those years. Among Alberta’s most cherished is watching the fall of communism in Eastern Europe together. “I began to understand communism in a way I never had,” she said. “The Rafas have stretched me. I think I’m a better person for having had this experience.”

Separate households did not unravel these new family ties. Maria Rafa worked in the Baptist Building for 11 years until she and Gilpin left in late 2000. She misses seeing Alberta every day, but the two talk often by phone.

“Alberta became a real mother to me, and a grandmother to the kids,” Maria said. “She’s a sweetheart, and we love her very much.”

Tudor added, “I have no words. She’s my mom.”

Neither the Rafas nor Gilpin can imagine these past 15 years without each other. Maria said, “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had her, because she’s always been there for me.”

Alberta said, “They fill lots of empty places in my life, never having married or had children of my own. They filled a great void in my life.”

She draws a spiritual lesson from the experience. “When you start out to do ministry and you think you’re going to help somebody else, God just gives you much more than you could ever give to somebody else.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FAMILY TIES.

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  • Tim Palmer