Wonderful and amazing things happen when we bring diversity together to help make our world a better place. An example of this, which our church is privileged to be a part of, is our relationship with a refugee family new to our Missoula community. I have invited one of our Refugee Mentor Team leaders to share the experiences of this team over the past year — I thank Rev. Debbie Schmidt for sharing this overview! — Rev. John Daniels, pastor, First United Methodist Church
The call came just after Easter. A motley group of us from First United Methodist Church in Missoula had tentatively volunteered to help support a refugee family. We expected them to arrive in six to eight weeks from somewhere on the African continent. Some of us on our team didn’t know each other — we were old-time Missoulians and recent arrivals to the community, too. We were young, old, working, retired. Mothers, grandmothers, teachers, pastors, social workers. What united us, and still does, was a heart for people forcibly displaced from their homelands by war and persecution.
Until the call came, we thought we had time to learn how to welcome refugees and get to know one another, to trust one another on our team. But instead we had two days! Our family was arriving from Eritrea via Israel, and we had to make sure they had a home to in which to land and thrive. Not possible, we thought.
Then we remembered the roller-coaster events of Jesus’ death and resurrection just recalled in church. His ragtag disciples didn’t think who they were called to be was possible either. And yet they became Easter people for the world. And so could we.
Scared, exhilarated, anxious, hopeful and determined, we shopped for special foods, gathered household goods, collected money, took training from the International Rescue Committee and connected with our wonderful Soft Landing organization, and readied an apartment for our family — a mother from Ethiopia, a father from Eritrea (who met in a refugee camp as teenagers) and their three children. And they arrived in Missoula — beautiful and tired, and the adventure began for us together.
Almost seven months have flown by — full of triumphs and challenges. Both parents are working, and all three children are in public school or Head Start. We are so thankful for Missoula Country Public Schools and wonderful teachers and counselors. Without exception, folks in our community have been welcoming and helpful and full of grace in working with our family. Is it easy to be a refugee family in Missoula? No, it is not. We in the mentor team get discouraged sometimes, along with our family. And we celebrate the many accomplishments too. The hospitality our family offers to us and others is extravagant. Their tea and coffee are beyond anything we can make.
And so, as we prepare to celebrate that most American of holidays Thanksgiving together, for what are we most thankful? Wherever we come from I believe that we are created from and for love. Love isn’t always easy or without cost, but it is why we are here — to love, to serve and to heal. We have grown together in love, perseverance and community — all around. God called our team, each of us with unique gifts and skills and love, to welcome the stranger, the refugee — no matter their race, religion or country. And we are grateful to be a part of this adventure in saying yes to God’s call. Along the way we have become good friends with each other and our family.
As with any family Thanksgiving, there will be little irritations, some difficulties. But there will be good food, and lots of love, too, around a bigger table. New traditions will be learned and shared. For this we give great thanks.
What about you? Might you be called to become part of this lovely expansion of the table in our community of Missoula? More families from Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria are on their way, we hope and anticipate. The International Rescue Committee and Soft Landing Missoula would welcome your compassion and service. Maybe next year your Thanksgiving table will be bigger and more blessed because of it.
If you would like to learn more about becoming an IRC Family Mentor Volunteer, volunteer training occurs once a month, on the third Wednesday of each month, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the IRC (Solstice Building, 1535 Liberty Lane, Missoula, MT 59808).