NAMB staff goes to the mission field

CLARKSTON, Ga. (BP)--As 260 North American Mission Board staff members stepped off the four buses that transported them from their Atlanta-area office to Clarkston -- about 25 miles away -- dozens of refugees were converging on Clarkston International Bible Church (SBC) around 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 3.

The immigrant men and women -- many wearing the brightly colored dress of their former country -- were making their weekly pilgrimage to the church to learn English. They are the lucky ones, the refugees who have escaped war, famine, political and religious persecution, and possible death in their home countries -- Cambodia, Iraq, Liberia, Sudan, Burma, Somalia, Thailand and 30 others. They include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Coptic Christians and even atheists.

For several years now, Clarkston –- a Georgia town of 7,200 with narrow, tree-shaded streets and cut down the middle by a train track -- has been the home for several thousand legal immigrants. Many lived in refugee camps back home or in transit before being admitted to the United States under this nation's immigrant quota with the United Nations.

"Clarkston was named as a refugee settlement site seven years ago," said Cathy Palmer, who serves with her husband Tim as NAMB Mission Service Corps missionaries in Clarkston. "The refugees are given three months to learn English, get a job, figure out public transportation, how to use food stamps and Medicaid. They're given three months' rent. After three months, they're cut off to go out and make it on their own."

NAMB's "Spiritual Focus Day" usually is a semiannual in-house gathering but the board's leaders this time chose Clarkston as the special day's venue. The idea was simple: Take the staff out of the comfortable confines of Alpharetta, Ga., and into a real-world mission field like Clarkston. For most NAMB employees, it was an up-close reminder of the missions opportunities surrounding them in the greater Atlanta area.

Another NAMB MSC missionary, Kevin Riley, Clarkston International Bible Church's community pastor, led an orientation for 60 NAMB staffers before venturing to Clarkston's streets for witnessing and prayerwalking.

"This is an international community," Riley said. "You will see and meet people from all over the world. You folks are the answer to prayers prayed by others before you. And people will come after you who are answers to your prayers today. You're going out ahead of God to share the Gospel and sow seeds."

The staffers who signed up in advance for street evangelism were supplied with tracts in Swahili, Nepali, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopia) and Spanish, among other languages and dialects.

NAMB's Victor Benavides' team shared the Gospel at apartments within a mile's walk from the church and led one young man and woman to Christ. Others handed out tracts at bus stops, in front of a pharmacy and other local businesses.

In two separate sessions of about 300 refugees, Kendale Moore coordinated informal classes of conversational English during which NAMB employees sat and talked to refugees just beginning to learn English. As Moore told Bible stories to the classes in the church's gym, national missionary Kerry Jackson did chalk drawings to illustrate.

In one corner of the gym, NAMB employees distributed tracts, testaments and entire Bibles printed in a number of languages. NAMB also provided the refugees with lunch from Chick-fil-A as the gym buzzed with conversations about family, hobbies, jobs and life in America.

NAMB ministry assistant Connie Blanchette was among volunteers who divided into five teams to visit refugee women at pre-designated apartments. "Usually, we couldn't understand a single word, but they understood the language of love. We did lead one African woman to Christ. There is no higher high than that."

NAMB's Richie Stanley and his team of 11 co-workers went to nearby Idlewood Elementary School, with children from 32 different countries. Stanley's team refurbished flowerbeds, planted plants and spread out fresh pine straw. NAMB national missionaries Bob and Phyllis Foy read to Idlewood's fifth-grade children.

Richard Harris, NAMB's acting interim president, thanked pastor Phil Kitchins and Clarkston International Bible Church for "letting us partner with them."

"This shows just how much the Atlanta area is a mission field. In Clarkston alone, they speak 54 different languages," Harris told the NAMB staffers. "This will make our work back at the North American Mission Board more meaningful every day. We shouldn't minimize the seeds we sowed today."

Kitchins, dubbed the "Bishop of Clarkston" by some and a former International Mission Board missionary who once worked with refugees in Brussels, Belgium, has served the unique SBC church for four years.

On this muggy September day, he stood at the door of the church gym and personally welcomed and shook hands with every one of the dozens of African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants coming inside to learn English so they could stay in America.

"We minister to 30-40 nationalities and have seven different language churches on our campus," Kitchins said. These include congregations of Ethiopians, Liberians, Sudanese, West Africans, Burmese (Myanmar), Karen (Myanmar) and Bhutanese. The church currently is working on planting a church for Iraqi refugees. In addition to Caucasians, the church's English-language services include Filipinos and West Africans. In all, Kitchins' diverse church runs about 800 every Sunday.

"Americans and Southern Baptists need to see that there's a population of immigrants and refugees all over Atlanta and the Southeast," Kitchins said.

"Clarkston is just a microcosm of all the immigrants and refugees coming into America right now," he said, noting that the refugees he and his church ministers to are legal immigrants, not illegal aliens.

"Events like the one NAMB held today show the refugees that others do care for them and their souls," Kitchins said.

Richard Leach, NAMB's team leader for servant and ministry evangelism, spearheaded the day. While NAMB employees always have been encouraged to take up to five days each year to participate individually in mission projects, Leach said this was the first time NAMB staff as a group had gone into a mission field for Spiritual Focus Day. Leach said it wouldn't be the last.

"We felt like we contributed something to the wonderful work our MSC missionaries are doing in Clarkston all the time," Leach said. "Our people are asking when we can do it again."


Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.

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