By Emily Holladay
“If you can do nothing for us today, can you at least give us some hope?” This is the question that rings through Robert Davis’ mind as he reflects on his involvement in the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship’s (KBF) Morocco partnership.
On one of his four trips to the North African country, Davis, a member of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., was visiting with a group of young refugee men who had arrived in Morocco from the Ivory Coast.
“These young men spent their days taking turns going out on the streets and seeking what little work they could get for whatever wages and often working for the day and then not getting paid,” Davis recalled. “They talked about the never-ending cycle of hunger and not knowing how they would eat or how long they would have the rooms that they were all sharing.
“After a period of time, the young man who was acting as the spokesperson asked us very pointedly, ‘What can you do for us today?’ He repeated the question a number of times and finally said, ‘If you can do nothing for us today, can you at least give us some hope?’
“That question is forever burned in my mind. ‘Can you give me hope?’”
In 2005, KBF began the Morocco partnership as an attempt to offer such hope to a global community. Through relationships with Karen Thomas Smith, a pastor in Morocco and a Kentucky native, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel David and Julie Brown who served in Morocco, the organization felt led to partner with Eglise Evangélique au Maroc (EEAM), an association of Protestant churches in Morocco.
Since EEAM already had a foundational partnership with CBF, which funded the work of David and Julie Brown, this seemed to be a natural place for KBF to integrate and serve. When the Browns ended their service in Morocco, CBF decided to continue this partnership. In 2011, CBF made a three-year commitment of $10,000 per year to KBF to support a new leadership structure with EEAM to connect more closely with indigenous leadership.
KBF and the Protestant Church of Rhineland (EKIR) matched this commitment to comprise the salary for a new secretary general of EEAM. The goal of this partnership has been to empower local leaders to determine the scope and focus of their work together.
Morocco is unique in that it lies on the border between Africa and Europe. Due to its location, the country hosts many migrants and refugees trying to make their way from desperate situations in their home countries, including war, violence and human trafficking.
In developing this partnership, KBF sought to find a way to create sustainable relationships with the communities represented through EEAM, working with them to offer hope to the people they serve. Through the leadership of Rhonda Abbott Blevins, former KBF associate coordinator for missions, the organization moved forward using a church-based model for their partnership.
Presently, nine KBF congregations are in a church-to-church partnership with EEAM congregations:
- Third Baptist Church in Owensboro with Casablanca Congregation
- Living Faith Fellowship in Elizabethtown with Fez Congregation
- Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort with Tangier Congregation
- Faith Baptist in Georgetown with Marrakech Congregation
- Lexington Avenue Baptist in Danville with Rabat Congregation
- Buechel Park Baptist in Louisville with Oujda Congregation
- Highland Baptist in Louisville with Refugees and Migrant Ministry (CEI)
- Deer Park Baptist in Louisville with Agadir Congregation
- First Baptist in Frankfort with Oujda CEI
Each church-to-church partnership is unique based on the needs of the partnering congregation, but each has the goal to develop and sustain transformative, long-term relationships that help develop leaders and contribute to improved cultural and social understanding between the two groups. Members from each congregation also visit each other yearly, with Americans traveling to Morocco one year, and Moroccan church members coming to the United States the next.
“Our church has partnered with the Protestant church in Rabat since 2007 with a focus on ministry with African refugees,” noted Keith Stillwell, associate pastor for discipleship at Lexington Avenue Baptist Church in Danville, Ky. “This partnership helps our church get involved and build relationships with one of the most tragic situations in our world — African refugees who flee poverty, famine and war in their home countries seeking a better life. Their situation is desperate.”
With Morocco being a predominantly Islamic nation, the Protestant churches that partner with KBF congregations also experience tension and isolation due to their minority beliefs. Many of the American participants have noted that the relationships with their partner churches have also helped them develop a more compassionate stance towards Muslim-Christian relations in their own context.
“As a predominantly Muslim country with a history of tolerance and acceptance of religious minorities, Morocco offers a context for Muslims and Christians to engage and dialogue on matters of faith and politics,” observed Roy Fuller, assistant professor of humanities and religious studies at the University of Louisville and member of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. “By partnering with believers in Morocco, we can learn what life is like for religious minorities in a context where the dominant tradition often holds inaccurate ideas about your religious faith and practice.”
“The partnership helps our members understand and build relationships with Muslims in Morocco,” Stillwell added. “Due to the tensions and hostilities in our world among Christians and Muslims, we need more understanding, dialogue and constructive relationships. We meet many friendly, peace-loving Muslims in Morocco and hopefully they see the same in us.”
Developing these relationships globally has inspired Lexington Avenue Baptist to connect around similar issues on a local level, and become involved in modeling these interfaith relationships in the United States.
Instead of an individual church partnership, Highland Baptist Church in Louisville felt led to partner with CEI, which is the social service arm of the Protestant Church of Morocco, as its aims resonated with the church’s mission and vision.
“By supporting them financially, we are partners in direct aid to persons who find themselves in a place they would rather not be, with little or no support, and little opportunity to improve their situation,” Fuller explained. “This aid ranges from assistance in obtaining and paying for necessary medications to help with medical bills to financial supplements for housing, food, micro-enterprise development and support and vocational training.”
Members of the Highland Baptist partnership team have expressed a similar experience of feeling led to replicate their work abroad at home.
“This partnership has been important to our church as it has opened our eyes to the realities of refugee needs and the issues of human trafficking, racism and the challenges of humanitarian assistance with transient populations,” Fuller explained. “Approximately 25 persons have traveled to Morocco on various trips, and our engagement not only focuses on immediate physical needs of refugees and migrants, but also on growing the network of partners, both inside and outside Morocco, who are all working to raise awareness of the issues associated with refugees and human trafficking.
“Many of us who have been engaged in the partnership will say that our relationship with Morocco has impacted how we see the world.”
“My prayer is that we as a community of faith can continue to be a financial partner in this work, along with finding ways to be a catalyst for change in foreign policy at the national level that will help provide legal status of some sort for all of those who are stranded in Morocco and do not have the ability to return home or to move forward to their hoped-for destination in Europe,” Davis added. “We have to educate ourselves on how to engage with our leaders politically to change how we look and deal with the issue of migrants and refugees all around the world.”
What began as a small dream for KBF to find new ways to engage globally has expanded into a new model of church-led partnerships. And in the cyclical nature of this type of engagement, the partnerships have gone on to benefit the local communities in Kentucky.
“The partnership between Kentucky Baptist Fellowship and Eglise Evangélique au Maroc has been an enriching and rewarding experience for all involved,” said KBF Coordinator John Lepper.
“In reality, this partnership exists on at least three levels. The initial level began between these two larger groups: the Protestant Church of Morocco (EEAM) and the state Baptist organization in Kentucky (KBF). Soon thereafter, the church-to-church partnerships developed. The level at which passion for this partnership has thrived is at the individual level. Individuals and congregations an ocean apart and worlds apart culturally benefit through reciprocal exchanges of immersion experiences, missional involvement and sharing of faith and life.”
What began as a dream for KBF to find new ways to engage globally is now an example for others to join in this church-led movement. Through this partnership, relationships are built, lives are changed and hope is offered.
“Find a context where you can partner with Christians in an international setting,” Fuller urged. “Listen. Listen some more. Hear the issues which are already facing your potential partners. Work together to deal with issues and potential solutions to the problems.”
For those involved in the partnership, the experience has changed their way of looking at the world, and has opened their eyes to the many ways they can be a presence for good.
“That question of hope was still out there,” reflected Davis. “How can I as a white male from the West provide hope to these young men who are basically living in limbo in a land that was not their home?
“For me, these partnerships hinge on our willingness to work for the long term. The issues will not be solved overnight and it will be hard work. …Our work with the CEI of the EEAM allows us to develop means of being a voice for those without a voice.”