How can the crisis of an Iraqi refugee family’s house fire help churches engage young women in missions involvement amid their busy twenty-first century lives?
Several congregations in the Knoxville area are discovering the answer through hands-on interaction with such ministry groups as Love World, Welcome House Knoxville, and Knoxville Internationals Network.
Kimberly Poore is a member of the Love World team at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville. The missions group, which launched in 2019, is geared toward young women ages twenty-five to forty. She said the leadership team seeks “to educate and also provide mission opportunities for other Wallace women within our church.”
Love World’s missions focus includes ministering alongside Welcome House Knoxville, a nonprofit ministry that provides temporary housing for immigrant and refugee families in the Knoxville area.
The ministry’s primary aim is “building long-term relationships through short-term housing,” according to welcomehouseknoxville.org. Providing “safe and loving space for individuals and families in transition to permanent housing” allows volunteers “to share the love of Jesus through the ministries of hospitality and friendship.”
Cindy Hood, the founder and director of Welcome House, noted that long-term housing often is difficult to find for many refugees, especially for larger families and single women with children.
After visiting a similar refugee ministry model while on a family vacation in North Carolina, Hood said she returned home with a burden to partner with Bridge Refugee Services, Knoxville’s local refugee resettlement agency. Following discussion with leaders at Central Baptist Church of Bearden and Knoxville Internationals Network (KIN), she began working to establish Welcome House Knoxville as a nonprofit ministry.
Renting an unused missionary guest house from a local church, Welcome House officially opened in 2019 to provide short-term housing for refugees or other internationals. The ministry also recruited Sunny Ikojoh, who came to the US as an international student, to serve as the minister of hospitality for guest families.
Meeting Needs in Times of Crisis
Since opening Welcome House’s doors, “we’ve had several single moms, mostly from Africa, with toddlers,” Hood said. Most recently, they hosted the refugee family of seven from Iraq whose rental home was destroyed last summer in a house fire.
Volunteers from Welcome House, Love World and KIN all came together to help meet that family’s urgent need in the midst of crisis.
“At supper time, they were cooking. The mom stepped out of the kitchen and when she came back in the kitchen was on fire,” Hood recounted. “It was too much for them to put out themselves and so they just really escaped with what they were wearing. They had a few trash bags of just some things they grabbed, but most things they lost in the fire.”
After the family spent a sleepless night in a local business where the father works, KIN’s director put them in contact with Welcome House, where they spent their second night. “We put out on our Facebook page what their story was and we had churches, individuals give through our website, and we were able to give them gift cards,” Hood said. “A volunteer took them shopping to buy clothing, shoes, personal necessities.”
The Iraqi father asked Hood several times if his family would be safe at Welcome House. “I assured him that yes, it was going to be very safe and that Sunny would be taking care of them—and he has,” she said.
“We are a ministry that wants to show the love of Jesus through Christian hospitality,” Hood emphasized. “However, we don’t require that someone is a Christian to live in the house. But we also are very willing to tell them why we’re helping them. . . . I feel like the best I can do is be the hands and feet of Christ in a very practical way.
“When I got the call about the Iraqi family, they needed to move in the next day,” Hood said. “So I got in contact with Kimberly Poore and she made a couple of phone calls, and she and another woman were able to meet me and my family—my husband and daughter—and Sunny at the house, and we just went through and cleaned the house super quick.”
When refugees or other international guests move into Welcome House, “I want it to feel like you’re at a friend’s house and you can relax,” Hood said. “There’s food in the refrigerator, there’s clean towels, clean sheets. You don’t have to really think about taking care of yourself for a few hours or a few days. You can just exhale.”
Equipping and Educating Volunteers
Jani Whaley, executive director of Knoxville Internationals Network, said her group’s goal is “to reach the internationals through the churches by equipping and educating church members and small groups so that relationships can be built and the Gospel message can be given.”
With a database of three hundred volunteers, she said KIN often helps find volunteers for the Welcome House for cleaning and getting supplies.
Recounting the night of the house fire, Whaley said the Iraqi family had been living down the road from her. “I saw the fire trucks; I saw the fire and I didn’t even realize that there was a refugee family that lived in that house,” she said. “It was just a few hours later I got a call stating a refugee’s house just burned down and there’s five children involved.”
As a former short-term missionary to the Middle East, Whaley said, “I have a heart for all internationals, but there’s something special about those Middle Eastern people that just really tugs at my heartstrings.”
After connecting with the family’s teenage daughter who speaks English, “I went over there within the hour and met the family and talked to the father and met all the children and developed a friendship right then and there,” Whaley said. The next day, “I went over to their house personally and loaded them up in my car and just picked through the rubble of their house. We took them to the Welcome House and got them situated.”
Doing Life Alongside Refugee Families
In his role as minister of hospitality, Ikojoh stepped in to assist the displaced family with day-to-day adjustments. “When that incident happened, we saw the love of Christ,” he said. “We don’t get to choose where we shine the light. The light is meant for everywhere, taking away all darkness all around.”
Ikojoh, who grew up in Nigeria, came to the United States in 2015 to attend seminary. After working with refugee families during a volunteer mission trip, he felt God was calling him to this ministry.
“I cannot fully understand what a refugee experiences. I can’t even fully understand what it means to be a refugee,” he acknowledged. “But being an international student, I can identify that truly they do go through a cultural shock.
“When we intentionally engage our international neighbors and make them feel at home, then we have been the light of Christ,” Ikojoh said. “We just listen and pay attention and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we respond to these needs. I think the goal is to do life alongside these people.”
In her leadership role with Love World, Poore helps coordinate the group’s quarterly gatherings in members’ homes. Activities range from hosting missionary speakers to providing a monthly fellowship brunch for international moms.
When Cindy Hood shared about Welcome House at one of the gatherings, “I felt the Lord really just putting that on my heart to be involved,” Poore said.
While she and other Love World volunteers have served the Iraqi family and other refugees by helping clean Welcome House and provide other needed resources, Poore said she hasn’t personally met the house’s international guests. But that doesn’t diminish her enthusiasm for her behind-the-scenes ministry opportunities. “We know their story,” she pointed out, “so we feel connected to them in that way.
“Being a part of this is important to me because God calls us to be disciples, make disciples of all nations,” Poore added. “He also calls us to unite together, to bear one another’s burdens.”
That powerful truth is making a practical impact for refugee families who call Welcome House Knoxville their temporary home.
How Can Your Congregation Help Young Women Develop a Heart for Missions?
How can your church start a missions group like Love World to help young women develop a heart for missions?
Kim Cruse, a former International Mission Board collegiate church planter in the Philippines, insists the need is urgent. “If you can put missions into the DNA of a new believer or of a young believer early on in their Christian life, they will always see missions as important,” she emphasized.
Cruse, who began serving last year as Tennessee WMU’s missions discipleship specialist, poses the thought-provoking question: “Where are the future IMB missionaries going to come from and where are the future mission supporters going to come from if we’re not able to engage and connect and get these younger women involved in missions?”
“This has been a burden of WMU for many years, so I love what has happened at Wallace [Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee],” she said. Missions leaders there launched Love World in 2019 to reach and involve women from age twenty-five to forty in missions discipleship and support.
The response has been noteworthy. In addition to listening to missionary guest speakers and praying for missionaries, Love World participants are involved in such hands-on missions projects as hosting a monthly fellowship brunch for international moms and partnering with Welcome House Knoxville to serve refugee families.
Those ministries are particularly fitting since Wallace Memorial is named in honor of Dr. Bill Wallace, a revered Southern Baptist medical missionary and martyr who served in China for seventeen years until his death in a Chinese communist prison in 1951. Seven decades later, Wallace Memorial and Love World echo Wallace’s commitment to global missions service.
“God put missions on my heart many years ago,” noted Kimberly Poore, a Love World team member. “As a mother of young children, it’s not easy just to pick up and go somewhere, but there’s so many opportunities locally that we are able to reach internationals.
“God has opened that door for me to be able to do that even within our church,” she added. “He just opened the doors to the international moms group. Our kids are playing together and creating friendships and just loving on one another.”
Love World’s quarterly gatherings “have given us the opportunity to be educated and to share mission opportunities within our area and also within the world that we can be a part of,” Poore shared. “A wonderful aspect of our Love World is just gathering together, praying for missionaries together and bringing awareness to the different mission opportunities within our world.”
Cruse said in her conversations with other WMU leaders, “I frequently refer them back to Wallace’s Love World group. This is a group that has found a way that’s working, that younger women are responding.
“Every time they gather, they have twenty to thirty young women that are getting more and more involved,” she pointed out. “They’re inviting their friends and some of them are really being engaged with missions for the first time.”
Love World’s ultimate goal, Cruse concluded, “is really to draw the hearts of these young women into God’s purpose of making His glory known around the earth and giving them opportunities to experience that firsthand.”