By Jennifer Colosimo
Sitting just off the main boulevard heading into Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Snyder Memorial Baptist Church has always had two things: a large military population in their congregation and the harbored connections to the military community that come with it and a heart for missions.
They founded Operation Inasmuch in 1995, and have always been a generous hands-on benefactor for missions, both globally and locally. They run a carpentry ministry that builds a ramp for someone each week and a sewing group that does things as needed; they maintain ongoing partnerships with Care Clinic and foster organizations and they do OIAM gifts for the American Red Cross, and more.
But perhaps what is most interesting right now is what they’re doing with the row of homes flanking the church’s property. Owned by the church and originally purchased for its future expansion, six are under the management of a rental company—one of which housed Snyder’s own minister of missions, Susie Reeder, when she first arrived as the church’s youth minister 26 years ago. The other is managed by the church as a mission house for its various and changing housing needs. It has sheltered many different kinds of people—homeless men and women, youth groups, missionaries on furlough and a handful of refugees. In the last five years, though, it has shifted into something more than a transitional house—into something much more like a home.
Much like the Welcome House Raleigh that Reeder toured in 2015, turning Snyder’s Mission House into a Welcome House would allow them to harbor refugees as they enter the United States. It would provide furnished temporary housing and community resources like schooling, daily necessities and connections to people for jobs, etc. It didn’t take much convincing once the missions team showed the congregation a video clip from CBF’s Global Missions featuring a spotlight on an Afghan refugee named Jay. A new chapter in their missions began without any hesitation.
“Jay was a military translator who wanted to be closer to the military community in Fayetteville,” said Reeder. “We wanted to help; that’s in our DNA, really. So, we moved him down here, and he stayed until he got his green card and joined the U.S. Army, and now he’s in the Special Forces branch.
Once the Snyder congregation saw what they could provide to one refugee, the requests started coming in. “It turned out that one of our members was trying to sponsor his own translator to come to America, because his life was in danger,” said Reeder. “He asked us if the family could stay there. They moved in, following Jay. But they didn’t stay as long, because the wife missed having community; so, they left, and the house sat vacant for awhile.” That sparked something else in Reeder. They could provide refugees the housing, the furnishings, and get children enrolled at schools, but how could they create a place that would feel like home? Luckily, she didn’t have to think about it long.
“The house had been sitting empty for a bit, and then all of a sudden we heard about other Afghan families who were coming,” said Reeder. “We had one day to clean out, one day to paint and about a week to pull out the old stuff and make repairs.”
What happened in the next few weeks still makes Reeder get choked up. The expected family was a family of seven, with five children ages two to 11, who spoke no English.
“The biggest thing for us has been how everybody has wanted to help,” she said. “A military wife we know donated a dining room table. Then I started getting packages from Amazon—dishes, pots and pans, a microwave. The address simply said, ‘To: Susie Reeder/Welcome House.’ That wife had shared an Amazon list with her friends who just started buying items on the list.
“We bought beds, refurnished what we needed to, and got it ready,” she said. “It looked so nice, and then it felt like we waited forever, because we were just so ready for them to come!”
While they waited, neighbor church Lafayette Baptist Church donated all of the hygiene products for the future families of The Welcome House, so Snyder can stock as they need to. Laurinburg First Baptist Church donated all the cleaning supplies. Another church provided all the school supplies. A local restaurant. Afghan Kabob, signed on to provide the first-night meal, so that the family could have a cultural dinner their first night in a new place.
“It’s been one thing after another,” said Reeder. “I will put something we need on our church’s Facebook page and, within minutes, we’ve got it. People are just really excited to help, to be the hands and feet of Jesus for these families.”
That’s still not the end. A church member at Snyder offered free dental services. Another, who also did a lot of work on the house, offered to drive the boys to school each day. Another introduced them to a translator. A doctor in the congregation has helped them get up-to-date on vaccines. And the owner at Kabob, once the family had arrived, had them over for dinner and introduced them to another family of 14, also from Afghanistan. The church helped him host a big family dinner at the restaurant to which they invited some of the military and members of the local media so that they could get the word out. It began to kindle that sense of community that Snyder’s Welcome House craved.
“The biggest need for these families is housing; so we kept thinking that maybe we would take the rented two houses next to it and use those for permanent housing. That would help us create a community for the families so that they’re not the only ones,” said Reeder. “So, that’s our plan. We’re waiting for one family of renters to move out; then we’ll go clean that house out, move our family in for something more permanent, and then be ready to welcome a new family into the Welcome House.”
As of the new year, the Snyder team is working hard to get the second house ready for the family currently in the Welcome House. The plan is that they will move out within the month of January, so that Snyder can welcome a new family into the Welcome House. The third house will be ready in the spring, and the beginnings of a community are within reach.
Finding jobs for the residents is next. But the divine provisions continue to make it impossible not to see God’s hand at work. A local neighbor, the owner of a landscaping business, saw the dinner at Kabob on the news and offered to hire and train the members of the families looking for jobs. Lafayette Baptist voted to turn two of its own rental houses into Welcome Houses, as well.
It’s exciting. And not just because they’re able to provide a new, safe home for these families, but because Fayetteville is such a great place for them to do that.
“Our military wants them to come here because they want to help them,” said Reeder, who says her phone is full of names of men and women she never thought it would be. “Our military know what [these families] have done to sacrifice for them, and what they have had to give up to come here. Because they helped us, we want to help them if we can.
“Who knew a mask would separate so many at the church, but that Afghan refugees would bring us together!” she added. “It has really opened up a whole new world of ministry to us and it has been so encouraging to see the ways people have wanted to help. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to all of a sudden pick up and pull out from everything you know to a country where you know nothing.”
Knowing their neighbors might be a good first step. Reeder mentioned that communication with the rental company that manages their other houses will help facilitate housing for even more families that need a new home in the future. And all together, it can be a place where these new families can feel truly at home.
Of course, this last year was a fish-out-of-water experience for the people at Snyder, too. A missions-minded church, their annual hands-on trips across the globe were cancelled. Their offerings had to be rethought.
“We couldn’t go on mission trips last year,” said Reeder. “So, the money we saved from going on those trips is the money we have used to fix up these houses. It’s like our little mission trip at home. Watching our people get to experience [what they’ve seen as a result] is life-changing for them.
“I can’t say, yet, what it’s been like for our refugee family,” said Reeder. “But I know that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying doing things here. They’re Muslim, you know, and when we were unpacking boxes in the house, one of the boys found the Koran. He walked around just holding it, treasuring it. You know, at this point, that’s the kind of thing we want to do for them. We just want to show them love; one day if they want to hear more, then, of course, we can’t wait to share it.”
Home or not, that’s certainly where the heart of this church is.