Students serve and learn in the most diverse square mile in America
by Alex Hentschel
Nestled in the suburbs of Atlanta sits the small town of Clarkston — the most diverse square mile in America, according to census data. What used to be a sleepy Southern town was transformed over the last few decades into a place bursting with culture, life and color because of refugee resettlement programs.
Refugees who flee their home countries from intense persecution have resettled in Clarkston from all over the world. These refugees arrive legally, sometimes permanently, because of ongoing atrocities being committed in Syria, the Congo, Nepal, Myanmar and countless other places. These atrocities include genocide, war, crimes against humanity and other environments that are devastating to the human condition. Most of these refugees have lost family members and all of their worldly possessions in their flight to a safe haven. The refugees who made it through the intensive (and often arbitrary) vetting process to make it to the United States comprise only a fraction of those in need, as less than one percent of all those in need are actually resettled according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
A team from Cedarville traveled to Clarkston over spring break to serve and learn. The team included Kurtis DePree, Alex Hentschel, Daniel Jaquish, Macey Kakuk, Anna Rowell, Zach Rubosky, Lexi Smith, Janelle Thompson and Katrina Wiebe, as well as the two student team leaders, Timothy Mattackal and Mikaila O’Keefe.
Many members of the team said that the moment they arrived, they knew they were in a place unlike anywhere they had been before.
“Stepping into Clarkston for the first time was not what I expected at all. It looks like an American town, but then you look a little closer and then you’re taken to a different country — well, a lot of different countries all at once,” sophomore Zach Rubosky said. “It was so amazing to see people from all over the world living in one place and creating new lives for themselves.”
The Cedarville team partnered with Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC), which is aided by the North American Mission Board. CIBC and its partners, including World Relief, do a number of outreach programs in the community. They also allow no fewer than six ethnic churches, including Pakistani, Nepali, Congolese, Sudanese, Karen, and more, to use their facility to worship in their native languages.
The team spent much of Sunday attending those services and worshiping alongside the refugees. Lexi Smith said this was a highlight of the trip for her.
“I had this moment in the Swahili service where all the people were worshiping God in Swahili,” she said. “It was lively and fun, and I had a moment where I was like, ‘Wow. God loves every person in this room as deeply and intimately as He loves me.’ It made me feel small but safe in what God tells me to do. We don’t need to worry — He’s bigger than culture, than language, than everything.”
The team mentioned that not all those in Clarkston are Christians and there is much need for the gospel, but that those ethnic churches do much of the work in reaching their own communities.
CIBC and its partners provide important services to members of the community, including furniture donations, community recreation nights, Bible study ministries and other outreach programs.
The team spent a lot of its week learning about refugees and advocacy. It went through several training sessions to learn how to minister to those of other faiths, as well as tools for sharing the gospel. They visited a mosque and a Hindu temple, and spent time talking with people of other faiths.
Through these sessions and outings, the team learned that Muslims often conflate the word “Christian” with the word “American,” which explains many of the misconceptions they have about Christians. They see American culture with its consumerism, perverse Hollywood culture, pleasure-based lifestyle and assume that Christians are the same. This opened their eyes to how Christians are perceived to those of other faiths.
Team leader Mikaila O’Keefe believes that one of the most important parts of the trip was that the students got to interact with refugees and learn their stories.
“It’s so important to remember that refugees are people,” she said. “They’re not helpless, and we’re not superior to them. They might be a refugee, but they’re also brothers and mothers and employees. They’re people — it’s just that right now they need a little help.”
Team member Kurtis DePree said he thinks it is important Americans remember refugees are here not by choice, but because the situation in their home country is dire.
“They leave their country because it is no longer livable. They are refugees because they have no other reasonable choice,” he said. “The choice to leave their possessions, lose family, country, and community are seen as worth the cost.”
The team also had the chance to visit the homes of refugees for times of fellowship. Several team members mentioned these outings were a favorite part of their trip, especially when they visited the home of one Pakistani refugee mother and daughter, Pramila* and Aisha*. Pramila is here as a single mother, and works 14-hour days. Somehow after that long day she had enough energy and joy to host 11 college kids, make them tea and share her testimony.
“It was crucial that we talked to Pramila and Aisha, and realized that they’re real women with real dreams,” O’Keefe said. “Their dream isn’t less than ours — they don’t see themselves as just refugees. Aisha sees herself as a teenager studying to be a doctor. Pramila wants to open a restaurant. They think in terms of dreams and goals, just like we do.”
Visiting this home was also a highlight for Smith.
“Pramila made us dance,” she laughed, “then she told us her story, and it has so much darkness and pain in it, but she told the side of joy and blessing. It made me evaluate the refugee crisis and how much hope the gospel can bring. For her, the gospel radically changed her story and redeemed it.”
Rubosky said that one thing that Pramila* said has been on his mind ever since:
“She said that people in America just don’t love the same way that people in Pakistan did,” he said. “That really opened my eyes to how much we have neglected the refugee crisis as Americans.”
One day of the trip, the water in the whole county ran out because of a broken water main. The team was forced to cancel their plans to help out with the after-school ministry, as all schools were canceled.
Rather than get discouraged, the team went on a “prayer walk,” where they walked through the community and prayed for anyone they encountered. Though many of the people they spoke to did not speak English, they understood basic words and the team was able to pray over them and ask that God would provide adequate housing, a good job, food and safety. The team also prayed that they would know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Freshman Macey Kakuk said this helped re-emphasize prayer for her.
“One of the things God taught me in Clarkston was the power of prayer,” she said.
Kakuk said her work with refugees seemed overwhelming, because they had gone through things she could not imagine. And yet, she said, God reminded her that nothing is too big for him.
“Prayer is never a last resort; it is the most powerful thing we can do to help the refugees here in the states and also overseas,” she said. “This is something you don’t realize until you face something that truly is so much bigger than you can handle.”
Team leader Timothy Mattackal had spent the summer of 2017 in Clarkston as an intern with CIBC, where he lived live in the community for several months.
“The internship allowed me to do much more than is possible during a one week missions trip,” he said. “I was able to build relationships with many of the people there, and […] be involved in advocacy work raising awareness, mobilizing people and teaching people about issues concerning refugees and refugee resettlement.”
Mattackal believes that getting to know refugees in the community is the best way to really understand their stories.
“There are many myths and a great deal of misinformation surrounding the topic of refugees,” he said. “A key way to dispel these myths is just to spend time with real-life people. Meeting individual people and getting to know them and hear their stories … makes it easy to understand that they are simply normal people just like you and me trying to survive and take care of their families.”
A common sentiment among team members was that they learned far more than they were expecting about refugees, their lives and their stories.
“God taught me that to serve him we just need to be available to be used,” Mattackal said. “Whether that just means being available to help a refugee find a job or being willing to go out and share the gospel with people regardless of the circumstances.”
O’Keefe mentioned that she learned several things about community and fellowship in Clarkston that she wants to bring back to her home church.
“There’s so many cultures, people and languages [in Clarkston], and they’re all very accepting of learning from each other and being proud of where they’ve come from and learning other cultures,” she said. “Anyone is welcome there because everyone is different. That’s something to share.”
*These names were changed to preserve their safety and privacy.
Alexandria Hentschel is a sophomore International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee, and honest debate.