By Jennifer Colosimo
Shortly after Marc Wyatt, CBF field personnel in North Carolina, sends a hopeful email to a group at his church, he starts to see God at work. A request to help a local Ukrainian family with groceries, toiletries, etc., results in an overwhelming fulfillment of those needs, but also unveils how close to home the people we help can be. As one church member began to jot down the address for the delivery, she realized it was on her own street. The family in need was one of her neighbors—people she had waved to earlier in the week—and that made the desire to do even more hit closer to home.
The email Wyatt sent was related to the partnership he and his wife Kim have with a local nonprofit that links Ukrainian families and their relatives to their communities so that those neighbors can lend a hand as hundreds of thousands of refugees try and figure out what’s next after the crisis back home. The partnership happened somewhat organically, illustrating Wyatt’s belief that God handles things even when we’re not prepared, and that through true Christian hospitality, we can start to reshape what it means to love our neighbor.
Ministering to Internationals has been in the Wyatts’ veins for more than 20 years. They spent 15 years in Canada building a housing program for refugees called Matthew House, before moving back to their roots in North Carolina in 2014. Here, where the international population was growing rapidly with refugees, asylum seekers, professors and their families, and more, they used what they had learned to found Welcome House. It began as a four-bedroom, four-bathroom apartment near North Carolina State University to temporarily house refugee families.
Since then, one house has grown into another, and another, moving beyond their neighborhood to border cities where refugees and asylum seekers are growing in numbers. Today, there are more than 30 ministries in North Carolina and three outside the state. As their reputation ripples out, much like a pebble in a pond, as Wyatt says, they’re constantly in conversations with other types of churches who want to replicate the idea themselves.
That’s never been more pertinent. With the recent influx of Ukrainian refugees, the time to tap into our potential to love one another is now.
As Kim Wyatt said, “The Great Commandment according to Jesus does not separate our love and service to God from any love or service toward our neighbor.”
But it was difficult as even with resources to expend, Marc and Kim couldn’t find Ukrainians to help. Luckily, thanks to that pebble, the Wyatts connected with Olena Koslava-Pates, founder of Ukrainians in the Carolinas. Almost a decade old, they’re an advocacy group that ramped up their work to help network for Ukrainians sponsoring their family members when Russia invaded. Once they met, the Wyatts got an email requesting housing almost immediately.
“With that first encounter, we realized Ukrainians are all around us ; we just needed to know who they are,” he said. “Their director lives near us. We were basically passing each other on the road, doing the same kind of work. We have a network of housing and a network of churches and everybody wants to be helpful; but we needed to know how to be helpful.”
Wyatt introduced the organization to agency leaders and to the North Carolina State Refugee coordinator, and they started going to the nonprofit’s gatherings, leaning into their similar missions and building a bigger team that could do bigger things to reach and help more families in need. The Wyatts have been connecting local churches to Ukrainian families who are sponsoring their family members. They’re developing grocery sign-ups and deliveries, helping with ESOL, paperwork and other kinds of things that volunteers would do with a refugee agency.
It’s not only about helping with groceries. The U.S.’s Uniting for Ukraine program is based on private sponsorship and has proved a heavy burden for many of the sponsors. Instead of utilizing the refugee agencies that are familiar with the process of resettlement, regular citizens have to carry the load. Add to that the fact that work authorization can possibly take up to a year for the new Ukrainian arrival and that burden gets out of control fast—especially when you’re a family of five, suddenly supporting one of 12.
“Now you’ve got hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian family members living across the U.S. who came here initially for reasons other than bringing their extended families over on their own and who were coming to grips with how much it costs to feed and house them,” Wyatt said. “And the problem was that we weren’t meeting them, because they weren’t using an agency, making them virtually invisible. But they were all around us.”
Now that they’ve tapped into a network to find those families, Wyatt said he’s overwhelmed by the way that his church, and others like his have responded. One older couple at his church, two professors at N.C. State who are grandparents, decided to turn over their three guest rooms to a potential Ukrainian family. His church also raised enough money for that same family’s apartment costs for six months. Other churches are catching on and engaging in their own ways as well.
“Today, we’re talking about Ukrainians; but last fall, it was Afghans,” Wyatt said. “The world has gotten so small that communities that may have had a political opinion about asylum seekers, refugees, and other people like that, are now realizing that those same people can look like me, have a life like me, come from families like mine. This then prompts them to ask, ‘Am I not responsible as a neighbor to the person who lives next door to me?’
“We often think of things as far away when we’re watching it on TV; but then all of a sudden, it’s in our neighborhood,” he added. “Biblical hospitality deals with the expectation that you’re going to have a stranger come to your door and need a place to stay. It’s the expectation that you need to have an extra seat at your table and another piece of bread because you may have someone come whom you need to feed. This is a transformative way of being Christian that pushes us into these places where it’s more than giving stuff to people—it’s giving ourselves to people.”
In fact, Wyatt is calling for an old-time revival—or at least, a renewal—in that same mindset that revivals inspire. He calls for a dramatic and immediate change to how we do community as a church, sloughing off what’s become something like customer relations and evolving into true Christian hospitality.
“These are not just volunteer opportunities anymore,” he said. “With these new families and people within our reach, it’s a chance to change the way we do life.”
It also encourages us to do it together. “When we think of the mandate to love our neighbor, hospitality is not just providing something like a hotel,” he said. “It’s coming together at a level place, like a table, where you’re equal and you’re sharing, and where you actually feel welcomed and brought into a private place in someone’s life.
“If you’re ministering to someone in a personal way like that and providing someone a home, it starts there. It’s so personal and the relationship is natural. We don’t have to think of some strategy of evangelism. We’re meeting them at a basic level and that opens up possibilities. That kind of very personal connection to people is the future of how we’re going to engage with our culture.”
That engagement is happening now (visit cbfnc.org) but culminates with a plethora of inspiration, celebration, and information this next spring at the first-ever CBFNC Housing and Hospitality Summit on Saturday, April 29 at Trinity Baptist Church Raleigh, NC. Find out more online, now.
Mark and Kim, Amen. What a blessing. Love and prayers.