Many of us with young kids are forever seeking the answer to the elusive question, “How can I raise unselfish children?” We want to know what we can do to help our kids realize they are not the center of the universe. When we see images on the news of mothers clinging to their Syrian babies amidst a small sea-tossed lifeboat or when we watch movies of children wandering through the African bush after their villages and homes have been decimated, we cling to our own babies a little tighter. And while we are thankful for the safety of raising children on American soil, it also makes us cringe when they complain about how far they have to walk from their bedroom to the kitchen or when they leave a plate of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese untouched.
At a young age, God placed on my heart a desire and burden to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It was not something I just felt called to do- it was also something I desperately wanted to do. In high school I went on a mission trip to China, bringing the Good News to unreached mountain areas. In college I spent several weeks in eastern Germany, assisting a small group of local believers to grow their ministry. In 2011, God placed on my heart a strong desire to be part of the Swaziland mission team, but it wasn’t until four years later that I was actually able to go. Even though I had been on mission trips in the past, this was my first time going as a mother, with four young children of my own at home. I was a different person than the carefree teenager who traveled the world years earlier.
In Swaziland, when I saw children walking many miles home from school, I pictured my own children. When I held an 11-month-old baby who looked like a newborn because she was so emaciated, I pictured my own babies. When I helped children carry 40 pound buckets of well water that they pumped, I pictured my children. While all of these situations gave me great empathy for these kids, it also made me realize how selfish and complaining my own children (and myself) are. I literally saw the “starving children in Africa” and it gave me a new perspective on life.
A desire began to grow in me to help family units at home be more mission-minded. It is something many of us want, but we struggle to find practical ways to do it. Over the years I had noticed that many of the serving opportunities we found for our Life Group to participate in together involved parents having to find baby-sitters for their children. It was easy to find ways to serve as an adult, but not many things we could include our children in. This can be particularly difficult for parents of toddlers and preschoolers. When we use the phrase, “motherhood is my mission” and are taught that our children are our biggest discipleship opportunity, then how much more important is it to involve them in real ministry and expose them to the poor and needy around us?
My husband and I have sought to be intentional, looking for various opportunities to include our children in mission work. Last summer we hosted a Backyard Bible Club, and for the past two summers we have encouraged our school-aged children to write letters and our preschoolers to draw pictures to send to the kids in Swaziland. We’ve sponsored a child through Compassion International. I have brought them along when we deliver a meal to a spouse of a deployed soldier or a friend that just got out of the hospital. We have sent care packages to our missionary friends in Africa. We have helped fundraise for friends adopting and my kids have sold lemonade to raise funds for my overseas mission trips. All of these opportunities have been GREAT, but I still felt a desire for them to be able to work directly with another culture.
Around this time our eyes were awakened to the city of Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston is a suburb of Atlanta and houses one of the largest refugee populations in the United States. Why had I never heard of this place? Most people I talked to didn’t know this refugee community existed. The government places refugees in communities all over the country, and Clarkston is one of these places. The refugees are given a one-time allotment of $5,000, a free run-down apartment for three months and a resettlement agent to help them transition. All of the aid stops at three months. These people who own nothing, do not know the language, and are not familiar with the culture are expected to begin to thrive within three months.
Working with Clarkston International Bible Church, we discovered that one of its needs was to go into the community to follow up on people it had previously made contact with. My husband and I began to assemble a small team for an overnight trip. Our first Clarkston team consisted of a group of adults and also six children under the age of nine. When we arrived, we divided into smaller groups. Working alongside a local church member, we walked through one of the apartment complexes, spotting people from what seemed like every tribe and tongue.
When my six-year old son spotted a group of boys playing nearby, he quickly ran over and asked if they would like to play soccer with the ball he brought. My four-year old daughter met a little girl named Hadassah and they played and picked flowers and put their hands on their hips to pose for pictures. Blair cried and cried when it was time to leave her new friend. One family passed out popsicles to my kids.
When we knocked on doors, they actually let us in. They actually let us in. When someone knocks on my door, I order everyone to be quiet and hide! But their hospitality astounded me. Sitting on worn out sofas or stained carpet floors, these families allowed us to share the Gospel and to pray with them, sometimes using the older refugee children to translate. The identical apartments were all small, one living room with connecting kitchen and bedrooms. Free promotional posters and calendars from the Chinese restaurant decorated the walls. The smell of home-cooked food filled the rooms. The people shared a commonality as well- the hard fact that they escaped a past so completely horrific that most of us cannot begin to comprehend it.
One of our teams visited the home of a family from Sri Lanka. Their four-year old boys all played with each other and became fast friends. The father knew some English, so they spoke with him and prayed with him.
A week or so after we returned home from Clarkston, my nine-year old son said in the car one day, “Mom, we are so rich. I mean, we’re not rich, but we have a lot. You know?” I looked him in the eyes and could tell he was pondering something big. “Are you thinking about the people we met in Clarkston?” I asked. He nodded solemnly. My heart flipped a little that maybe, just maybe, he was starting to “get it.”
A couple of months later, my husband and I and three of our children returned for one of Clarkston International Bible Church’s Saturday Outreach days. We visited the home of the Sri Lankan family whom our friends had visited previously. We learned that the father believed in God but had no relationship with Him. He was angry with God. He fled his home country two years prior because he had been imprisoned and tortured for a year and a half, while five of his family members including his Christian father and siblings were killed. He didn’t understand how God allowed that to happen. Like many of the other refugees, he was also frustrated. He was an electrician in his home country, but everyone here whether doctor or businessman, starts out at a chicken plant. He was mad at his situation, mad at God, and he did not see God’s plan for his life. We were able to share Scripture and the story of Job with him. The CIBC church member with us told him about an organization called The Lantern Project. This non-profit was created to help displaced peoples train and receive the necessary certification to work in this field.
We returned a few weeks later and visited this family again. They were once again hospitable to us, welcoming us into their warm, cramped apartment and bringing us drinks and snacks, but one of the most exciting opportunities was to bring a Jesus Storybook Bible to their nine-year old daughter. My husband talked to the father about how he reads this Bible each night to his own children and how it has actually taught him a good bit. We could begin to see a softening in this refugee man’s heart, the Lord working to reveal Himself in his life. We learned that he is applying with The Lantern Project and looking to begin night school in the fall. He is on a path to becoming an electrician in the United States, beginning to restore his dignity and above all, his HOPE. We told him that our prayer for him was that God allowed him to be spared and brought here for a bigger purpose.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” –Romans 5:3-5
One of my favorite aspects of serving in Clarkston, Georgia is not only the impact we can make on the refugees or the impact they make on us, but that it is such a beautiful example of families ministering together. Our children are not just an underfoot hindrance here- they are a connecting point.
by Casey Willis