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World Refugee Day: Refugees start more than new lives

LONDON (BP) — Nations are preparing to recognize World Refugee Day on June 20. Many countries are focusing on the needs of the displaced peoples in their communities, and what they’re finding is surprising.

Nearly 60 million people worldwide have fled their homes due to violence from political unrest and persecution based on nationality or religion, says the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. More than 69,000 sought refuge in the United States in 2013 alone, where they are starting more than new lives on American soil — they are starting churches as well.

“We started the Zomi church in Oklahoma City, Okla., because God call[ed] us to do so,” pastor Hang Tung said, “and we wanted to worship and praise God [in] our mother tongue.”

Pastor Tung came to know Christ in Myanmar and brought his faith to the United States in 2010. In the past 5 to 10 years, religious and racial persecution has risen in Myanmar, and the U.S. has received an influx of refugees from the region. Pastor Tung reported his church has anywhere from 80 to 120 Zomi attendees on Sundays and has seen many come to know Christ.

Ralph Garay, senior consultant for church planting with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, helps train and resource church planters from all over the world.

“[The church] meets spiritual, social and emotional needs of these people groups,” Garay said. “It’s just a big help to them, … especially as they learn to live in a foreign country where almost everything is new to them.”

Garay has seen the refugee community thrive when they worship Jesus together and serve one another.

“Refugee-background churches are reaching out … to their friends and then helping them. Then, as a result, families are coming to know the Lord. It’s a holistic approach of ministry, meeting some physical needs, the emotional, social and … spiritual needs,” Garay said.

And it seems the approach is working as more and more refugees find a sense of belonging through churches that they can relate to on a cultural and spiritual level. “These are common stories,” Garay said.

The number of refugees fleeing their homes continues to climb, but Christ is turning persecution into an opportunity to spread His love and His Word, and to grow His kingdom.

Abel Yohannes* first heard the Gospel in an Ethiopian refugee camp where he lived for seven years before his family moved to the U.S. They came to America seeking “freedom from war and an opportunity to live life outside of the refugee camp,” Yohannes said.

Yohannes started a house fellowship in his family’s apartment where as many as 20 children meet each week. “[We] pray, retell Bible stories and memorize Scripture,” he said.

Faith in Christ has led Yohannes to preach God’s love to refugees throughout the Midwest and online through a Kunama community Facebook page.

Yohannes understands the difficulties refugees are facing: working long hours to support their families, missing their home countries, and struggling to build a life for themselves in America. But he also knows God is seeking out refugees to show them love and hope.

“God’s Spirit in me makes me happy, no matter what I have or don’t have,” he said. “I know I have hope through His grace and power. I have purpose in life to reach other Kunama people and people of all nations.”

*Name changed.