By Justin Horey
Tucson, Arizona, may seem an unlikely destination for international refugees, but it is a federally designated “hub city” with one of the largest refugee populations per capita in the United States.
Roughly 1,000 international refugees arrive in Tucson every year. Most of them come feeling frightened and alone with few possessions and little money. But a growing number are greeted at Tucson International Airport with balloons, “Welcome to America” banners, and friendly, smiling faces from the people of nearby Pantano Christian Church eager to show the love of Christ to their new neighbors.
Pantano Christian started its refugee program more than a decade ago at the invitation of Tucson Refugee Ministry, a local nondenominational organization that “inspires and empowers church groups to meet the needs of refugees.” According to Tucson Refugee Ministry, fewer than 50 percent of refugees who come to the United States are befriended by an American.
Caroline Martin coordinates Pantano’s refugee program with her husband, Dr. Frank Martin, and Gary and Millie Pattee. She believes it is critically important to establish more connections between refugees and U.S. citizens,
“People who have met loving Americans are more inclined to engage with the culture, learn the language, and assimilate effectively,” Caroline Martin said. Of course it is far better, she said, if those newly arrived refugees are befriended by Christian people who can show them what abundant life truly is.
Meeting Practical Needs
Pantano’s refugee ministry clearly has a spiritual component, but it is first intensely practical. Volunteers from Pantano get names of incoming refugees from Refugee Focus, one of three agencies employed by the U.S. government to facilitate the relocation of refugees. Together they welcome each new family at the airport. Refugee Focus rents an apartment for the family, but volunteers from Pantano donate furniture, linens, and groceries—and most importantly, offer their friendship and time.
Most refugees don’t know what to expect when they arrive, and some are nearly paralyzed by fear.
“When the families first get off the plane, they are so scared,” Millie Pattee said. “One family was so fearful, they didn’t even get off the plane and eventually had to be escorted into the terminal.”
When the refugees meet the welcome team from Pantano and begin to understand what the church intends to do for them, Pattee said, their attitude changes drastically. “They become so at ease.”
Pattee said the church’s original plan was to stay involved with the families for 90 days. But in most cases the relationships go on for much longer. Volunteers from Pantano work closely with the families to help them adjust to their new city—often riding buses and visiting the grocery store together.
“It’s far better for us and for them if we teach them how to ride the bus so they learn to be independent,” Caroline Martin said. Volunteers from Pantano regularly accompany parents to their child’s first doctor appointment and even assist with enrollment at school, meeting teachers with the families.
The work can be challenging, and at first the volunteers speak through an interpreter or use a translation app on their phones, but Pattee said the relationships grow strong because “the international language is love.”
The Future of Missions
Tucson may have more refugees per capita than many other U.S. cities today, but Caroline Martin thinks it is just a matter of time before every metropolitan area in the country is affected by incoming refugee populations. “It’s going to impact our whole country sooner or later,” she said. “It’s like a tsunami.”
Still, she is not intimidated or frightened. She sees her ministry as straightforward and clearly biblical.
“We certainly should be serving the people who are here in our cities, our newest neighbors,” she said. In her experience, both the refugees and the volunteers from Pantano are blessed by their interactions. “We are blessed to be a blessing.”
Caroline Martin also believes incoming refugees will change the nature of U.S. missions in the years ahead. With ever-growing numbers of refugees entering the United States, she foresees a time when American missionaries will have the opportunity to stay close to home and minister to foreigners on American soil. “People are now coming to us!” she said.
At the same time, “America needs to be very careful that we don’t overload our infrastructure with refugees,” Martin said. When that happens, she said, people become isolated and create “tribes”—attempting to recreate their native culture in America and failing to assimilate here.
Sharing the Love of Christ with Muslims
Pantano’s refugee ministry is not overtly evangelistic, but Millie Pattee said, “It’s a great opportunity to be able to talk to people about your faith.”
Many of the refugee families are Muslim, and nearly all of them are experiencing Christian people and Christian love for the first time. Caroline Martin finds great joy in it, saying, “We are, through Jesus’ love, showing them the best way to live this life!”
The Martins have ministered to Muslims in the United States and overseas since 1967, so they understand the culture well, and their relationships provide unique ministry opportunities. In 2014, just as they were about to leave for an overseas mission trip, the Martins received a phone call from a friend asking them to meet a Yazidi man whose family was trapped at a refugee camp in the nation that Frank and Caroline were about to visit. They reluctantly agreed to meet the man, who was in the United States on a special visa, and they were moved by his story. Although they thought it unlikely they could find his family during their trip, the Martins agreed to carry a cell phone and some other necessities to the man’s wife and children.
Before they left, the Martins’ new friend asked them to pray for his family. Surprised by the request, the Martins reiterated their Christian faith and told him plainly that they always pray in Jesus’ name. The man had begun attending an Arabic-speaking congregation in Tucson, and gladly agreed.
Miraculously, the Martins found their friend’s family and were even admitted into the refugee camp where they prayed to the one true God in a tent with a group of Yazidi refugees—some of whom had lost immediate family members to ISIS executioners. Caroline remembers the prayer meeting as one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of her life. Paraphrasing Psalm 34:18, she said, “Jesus shows up for the brokenhearted.”
Months later, God answered the Martins’ prayers for their new friend and his family. In December 2015, the entire family received permission to leave the refugee camp and traveled to Tucson, where they were reunited with their father. Their arrival was broadcast on local television.
The father has continued attending the Arabic-speaking church and is slowly including his family in his new community.
How Your Church Can Begin
Frank and Caroline Martin’s background is unique, and Tucson is more heavily populated with refugees than many American cities, but displaced refugees are already living in all 50 states. Millie Pattee encourages churches everywhere to begin ministering to the refugees in their midst. “Any church in any part of the country could do this,” she said.
To launch a refugee ministry at your church, or for a list of refugee organizations in your city, visit Refugee Highway Partnership North America at www.rhpna.com. (For additional information about refugee programs in Tucson, Arizona, or the specific ministries mentioned in this article, e-mail Caroline Martin at email@example.com.)
The Martins say that reaching out to refugees who have lost everything, including their trust in others, brings profound rewards. For everyone involved in the refugee ministry at Pantano Christian Church, it is a joy to obey the Lord’s command in Leviticus 19:33, 34: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Note: Due to the sensitive nature of the situations described in this article, some names and places have been removed to protect the people involved.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.