Middle East

Love Hopes All Things

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What happens when an affluent, conservative, and mostly white church’s neighborhood is suddenly inundated with hundreds of international people?

That’s what happened to us.

In May of 2016, I was called as senior pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, a prominent Oklahoma church with strong denominational ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. South Tulsa is well-known among the one million people in our metro area as the destination for Tulsa’s “white flight.” It is a relatively homogenous area, and our community boasts dozens of gated neighborhoods filled with luxurious homes. We are adjacent to the most popular retail stores, desirable restaurants and high-end gyms.

In the last few years South Tulsa has also become the temporary home of nearly 10,000 resettled refugees and immigrants. Families from all over the world now reside within blocks of our well-manicured church campus and first-generation children have begun attending our very best schools. Our community is no longer homogeneous.

And there is no doubt in my mind that we are better off because of it.

An Opportunity to Love

As I began to examine our changing community, it was obvious that there would be significant needs, as well as missional opportunities amidst the newly arrived families. Here in South Tulsa, God was bringing the nations to us, and the prospects of serving people from at least five different continents were promising.

The most glaring needs were among adult refugees and immigrants. At the time, new families were arriving weekly. Their children were thriving in South Tulsa’s local schools. Yet for many adults, integration was far more difficult. These families provided us with a unique opportunity to love and serve our most vulnerable neighbors, and to direct hope toward them in expectation and trust of God’s plan.

Our church is constantly looking for ways to improve our ministries. Initially, I pursued help from many organizations who were ahead of us in the field, but ran into several roadblocks. That’s when I reached out to World Relief. Even though they have no office in our city, they graciously jumped into the fray with us and began to share information, strategies, personal support, invitations to refugee events, advocacy support and even overseas training to help us become educated and equipped for the growing challenges we were facing.

Soon after our relationship with World Relief began, however, our most formidable obstacle emerged.

Internal Conflict

As the presidential election was heating up last year, so was the topic of refugees. The rhetoric on both sides grew quickly intolerable, and any space for reasonable dialogue fell by the wayside. When the executive travel ban was announced in February, we went through several weeks of conflict and distraction. I heard phrases like, “we are voting on whether or not ISIS gets a free pass into our country,” and I saw the difficult impact of those opinions on our ministry. One family organization who had been using our facility terminated the relationship with less than a week’s notice because they felt we were putting children in danger by holding English classes and serving Muslim people in the building.

Of course with several families from the Middle East now connected to our church, tension was building rapidly inside our walls. It was in the midst of this that I chose to advocate for welcoming refugees publicly.

One Sunday morning, I asked the congregation to affirm with me, out loud, that we would not let this one issue distract us from our call to the Great Commission. I also asked them to agree that we not allow the current political climate to infect our congregational unity. In both services, there was a hearty “Amen.”

Becoming A Congregation of Hope

As more members of the congregation stepped out in faith and began to welcome refugee and immigrant families, loving relationships began to form. Our congregation and these families realized they could learn a lot from one other, that each of them had something unique to give. The depth of those connections surprised them. And we were reminded once again that God is constantly at work in changing all of us. After six weeks of very intentional reconciliation of church members, we emerged stronger than ever.

Today we are becoming a multi-cultural church. Our international families are involved in nearly every part of our church life. We translate sermon notes into four languages and our Scripture reading is done regularly in multiple languages. Several international adults and children have been baptized or have dedicated their families to the Lord. And the surprise exodus of that family organization mentioned earlier? Well, it opened up rooms for us to serve even more refugee and immigrant families in our church.

Through God’s grace, hope is alive in South Tulsa. Our prayer is that God will continue working in and through us, and pull us forward, so that we might demonstrate His love and the hope of Jesus to those from the nations who are coming to us.

As I reflect on the changes in our church, I am amazed that all this has happened in less than a year. It is a testament to the fact that love always hopes, in all things.

For those who would prayerfully seek to take on similar endeavors in their own churches, I hope our story provides encouragement to you.

 

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. - Romans 15:13


Through the end of the year, we'll be featuring stories of individuals and communities putting Love in Action—bringing hope to the hurting and shining light in the darkest hours.

Learn more and put your Love in Action today.


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Eric Costanzo has served as Pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church since May 2016. Eric has a B.A. in Bible from Oklahoma Baptist University, and both a Master of Divinity and Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2013, he published his first book entitled Harbor for the Poor. Eric is married to Rebecca (2001) and they have four incredible children—\Adin, Noah, Abigail, and Kynzleigh. In his spare time he enjoys being run ragged by his four children and all of their activities (which includes coaching), traveling, reading, and collecting antique books.

Agents of Peace Amid Despair

refugee crisis help

by Maggie Konstanski
World Relief Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator


Last month, I stood in Iraq while looking out over Syria. My heart was heavy. New challenges emerged by the hour and all of our efforts felt insufficient when compared to the immense and ever-growing needs. As I stood in one land and looked out over another—both of which are entrenched in horrific conflicts, my frustration grew. I was overwhelmed by the news cycle that day: violence, terror, hate, persecution and unimaginable atrocities perpetrated against children. And, as violence continues to cause mass displacement around the world, this same news cycle showed many countries adopting increasingly restrictive policies that result in closed doors, preventing the persecuted from finding refuge.

At the end of most days, I find myself crying out questions of why and how long people must be left to languish in such circumstances. I struggle with the knowledge that we’re too often paralyzed when confronted with suffering at such magnitude—oftentimes believing there is no hope, that there is only darkness and that the dawn will never come. Today, too many of us have come to believe that the darkness is impenetrable, the conflicts too entrenched and that our resources are too small to make a difference.

But there is another story. It is the story of a small but persistent church body, isolated and under-resourced, yet powerfully engaged. It is a story of hope and light amidst the darkness.

The Middle Eastern conflict and disruption has been devastating for millions of men, women and children. Yet, this terrible struggle has also given the church an unparallelled opportunity to reach out to their vulnerable neighbors. Though these churches are usually small and often face significant challenges, their leaders deeply desire to serve faithfully and extend love, compassion and refuge to the thousands of suffering around them.

Today—perhaps more than ever—the church in the Middle East has the opportunity to break down damaging historical perceptions and cultural stereotypes, and foster restored relationships in their communities. And as the world looks to see how the global church responds to this conflict, its legacy will be one of love and welcome. It will be a “light for the world.” A town built upon a hill that gives light to everyone and shines a path forward, one of hope and of peace.

I have seen enough to believe that there is no place secluded enough, no place dark enough and no place disguised enough to keep the oppressed hidden from a God who hears their cries. I have seen the church reaching the furthest corners of the most vulnerable communities, identifying the neediest for emergency assistance and connecting them to the services and resources they need. I have seen them reaching the unreached in fearless and compassionate service.

This is a place where I know morning will come. The dawn will break upon us. The sun will rise. Darkness will be vanquished. This is a place where the church is truly stepping out in faith as the hope and light of the world. And I have already seen this light.

I see it in the faces of children who laugh, play and show compassion to others in our kids clubs and safe spaces programs. I see it in the displaced community as they seek to serve one another and make sacrifices for others. I see it in parents here who give up their own lives and comfort in hopes of providing a different future to their children. I see it in families who welcome the refugee, the stranger and share their homes and dinner tables. I see it in the person who forgives words said in anger and frustration, and extends undeserved grace. I see it in the grace, forgiveness and kindness that have been extended to me by so many.

And above all, I see it in the church that chooses to boldly and compassionately reach out, even when they themselves are under pressure and persecution.

We may not be able to end all conflicts. We may not be able to meet all the needs on our doorstep, but we can answer God’s calling and follow the church's lead to love those in front of us. We can work through the church to push back the darkness in our own spheres of influence. We can advocate for more action. We can show compassion. And we can be peacemakers.

Across the Middle East, the church is bringing light to places of great darkness. In the valley of the shadow of death, churches are agents of peace, light and reconciliation in communities entrenched in conflict. To witness their love in action and commitment to guiding the region towards a path of peace inspires me with renewed hope each day.


Maggie Konstanski has been a part of the World Relief team for over 4 years, and currently serves at the Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator. With a passion for international human rights, Maggie often uses work-related travel as a platform to tell the powerful stories of the vulnerable families and communities we serve.

Thank God for Women — Defiant Love

*Some information has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

*Some information has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
 


Six years ago, I was sitting at a small, unsteady table, in a room that was oppressively hot. Aamiina, a young refugee woman sat across from me. A few months prior to that, the word “refugee” had not really been part of my vernacular, but it was now an everyday term.

We opened the room’s small window to try to let in a breeze, and the cacophony of the streets soon invaded any sense of peace and quiet. Aamiina began to share her refugee journey—a story of sorrow, suffering, and loss.

To this day,  I have never been able to repeat what I heard, though I can still remember every detail. I still think of the two daughters Aamiina lost—one to death, and one to kidnapping. I wonder if her daughter is still alive somewhere, and if she knows how her mother longs to find her.

When Aamiina finished her story, she said something that I will never forget: “All the people that did these things to me, they want me to hate. But my act of defiance is to love.”

Amiina’s love and gentleness defied all odds. Despite such loss, Aamiina later took young women under her wing and loved them as if they were her own daughters. Her love changed these women. Her love changed me.

Since that day, I have met many women like Aamiina in some of the most violent corners of this earth. I have connected with mothers from Syria, who have made dangerous journeys across deserts and seas to seek refuge for their children. I have cried with women who have pulled their children from beneath the rubble of destroyed homes, schools, and hospitals. I have witnessed young women who have had to discontinue their education because of conflict, and instead have chosen to invest in the education of children in their communities. I have seen young women return to their destroyed homes, and begin the courageous work of rebuilding, even in the midst of uncertainty. I have seen women volunteer long hours to serve others, even when their own needs were profound. I have watched my friend—after ISIS killed everyone in her family except for her younger sister—work long hours to pay for her sister’s education.

These women inspire and fuel much World Relief’s work in the Middle East. We work with Syrian women who volunteer in Child Friendly Spaces, providing psychosocial, education, and health support to children. We partner with women in Iraq who provide support to children and youth in their communities. We stand with women that are working to rebuild their communities and restore livelihoods to their families as they return to cities in Iraq.

Women are leading, creating, and defining the work that we do across the Middle East. I am profoundly grateful to know these women and to witness the work that they are doing.

The women World Relief partners with and serve have taught me to love courageously. Love is not weakness in the wake of hatred and violence. Love is not passive. Love—like my friend Aamiina shared—is an act of defiance. The love of women across the Middle East is driving out darkness, and making the way for peace.

I thank God for women because women defy the darkness.

I thank God for women because in places of destruction, women rebuild, restore and reclaim peace.

Give to World Relief today.

Together, we can create a better world for women like Aamiina.


Maggie

Maggie Konstanski has been a part of the World Relief team for over 4 years, and currently serves at the Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator. With a passion for international human rights, Maggie often uses work-related travel as a platform to tell the powerful stories of the vulnerable families and communities we serve.

In Remembrance of Alan Kurdi

[WARNING: The blog post below contains images that some readers may find disturbing.]

Alan Kurdi died one year ago today.

On September 2, 2015, three year old Alan’s lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey. The photo of Alan appeared on the homepage of just about every media outlet in the Western world. And perhaps for many, that day marked the first time we collectively mourned the senseless loss of a Syrian refugee’s life.

But, is the option any better for those who choose not to flee, who make the difficult decision to stay in their homes?

Just two weeks ago, the world was stunned as the photo of young Omran Daqneesh showed up on our computer and phone screens. We were forced to confront again that the Syrian civil war— and the refugee crisis in the Middle East—is far from over.

Photos courtesy European Pressphoto Agency

Photos courtesy European Pressphoto Agency

 

For Syrian families, it seems there are no good options. If you flee, your child’s life is at risk. If you stay, the bombs continuously move closer until one day they drop on your family.

Above all else, we continue to mourn Alan Kurdi on the anniversary of his death. We mourn for Omran,his family, and for the loss of Omran’s older brother, Ali.  

As we mourn, we also double down on our commitment to stand with the vulnerable, in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Since there is often no good choice for these vulnerable families, World Relief has chosen to stand with those who stay, and those who flee. We’re providing immediate aid, resettlement assistance, long-term economic development, and advocacy on behalf of those affected by war and violence.

We’re tired of seeing pictures that break our hearts. We know you are too. But we must continue to let our hearts be broken and be moved to act, until the day that pictures like Alan’s and Omran’s no longer appear on our screens.

The (Bloody) Face of Violence in Syria

If you haven't already, take a moment and watch the video below. It's not easy to watch. It shouldn't be. It's horrific, startling and heartbreaking.

It feels all too familiar. We are two weeks away from the one year anniversary of young Alan Kurdi's death. Seeing the photo of Aylan’s lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey was—for many—the first realization that something truly horrific was happening in Syria, and for those fleeing Syria.

This morning, these images of Omran feels like a second realization—that the Syrian conflict is far from over. That countless lives are being lost and destroyed by the civil war there. That children are literally being bombed out of their homes. While it’s not clear yet about the full circumstances of this incident in Aleppo, what is clear is that no child should be made to suffer in this way. Instead of finishing their summers wiping water from their faces after swimming practice, children are wiping blood from their faces. Instead of wearing smiles on their faces while playing with Legos, there are vacant looks of shock, as their homes and family members are lost.

Watching the video of Omran, it’s so easy to feel helpless. But each of us can help. YOU can help.

Donating to World Relief is not the solution to the Syrian civil war. We get that. But we truly believe that we can all offset human suffering, as we become change-makers. Your donation to World Relief allows us to continue investing in the lives of refugee children, like providing child-friendly spaces where kids like Omran can once again play, learn and grow.

Because this crisis continues every day, our commitment to Syrian refugees and others displaced in the Middle East MUST continue. We can not—must not—"grow weary in doing good.” (Galatians 6:9)

VITAL STATS:

  • More than 300 people killed in and around Aleppo in the last two weeks. (source: ICRC, 8/18/16)

  • One out three killed were women and children. (source: ICRC, 8/18/16)

  • Currently 4,812,278 registered Syrian Refugees. (source: UNHCR, Government of Turkey, 8/16/16)

How You Stand with the Vulnerable

Photo courtesy Preemptive Love Coalition

Photo courtesy Preemptive Love Coalition

Because of the generosity of donors, World Relief was able to help Preemptive Love provide food and other essential items to 500 families in Fallujah.

Two weeks ago, Iraqi military forces began ground operations around the city of Fallujah to reclaim it from ISIS. Within the first week, 500 families were liberated but left without food, water, or shelter. However, because of your support, that quickly changed. Here’s how:

Our partners at Preemptive Love Coalition provide aid and relief on the front lines of the war against ISIS. They operate behind enemy lines in some of the most dangerous and heavily militarized zones of the Middle East. As ISIS cuts through the region, leaving death and destruction in its path, Preemptive Love follows behind, giving food, shelter, and essential non-food items to families affected by the conflict.

Two weeks ago, as the Iraqi-led military operation against ISIS drew closer to Fallujah, Preemptive Love anticipated the humanitarian crisis that would unfold as the conflict reached the city. In need of immediate funds to supply aid for thousands of people, Preemptive Love reached out to a number of its partners, including World Relief.

Thanks to the donations many of you regularly make to World Relief, we were able to quickly give Preemptive Love $20,000 to provide food, mattresses, medicine, and hygiene products to the families of Fallujah. Because of your support, 500 families in Fallujah have food! That’s no small accomplishment.

When you make a donation to World Relief, you make it possible for us to fulfill our calling to stand with the vulnerable—both by expanding our operations, and by allowing us to give to organizations like Preemptive Love. 

Consider making a one time donation today, or commit to showing your continued care for the vulnerable by committing to give $29 per month.

Thank you for your commitment to the vulnerable, and your trust in World Relief. Your support for our organization and organizations like Preemptive Love means the difference between life and death, and between hope and despair for so many around the world.

Eugene Cho: Video Update from the Middle East

Pastor, author and friend of World Relief Eugene Cho is currently in the Middle East, along with teams from One Day's Wages and World Relief. The teams are visiting local leaders who are actively involved in welcoming Syrian refugees, helping the displaced resettle and begin to build new lives.

 Watch Eugene Cho's update from the Middle East, recorded a few days ago.

World Relief is honored and grateful that One Day's Wages is partnering with us to provide education for Syrian refugee children and support schools teaching a Syrian curriculum so kids can continue in their education where they left off.

Learn more about One Day's Wages, and stay tuned in the coming weeks for more information about how you can get involved.

Finding Hope on the Front Lines, Part 2

Finding Hope on the Front Lines, Part 2

Editors Note: What follows is an excerpt from another update received from Maggie Konstanski, World Relief's Disaster Response Manager. (Read Maggie's first update.) Maggie writes from Iraq, where she is currently working with local leaders to assist families forced from their homes because of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Finding Hope on the Front Lines

Editors Note: What follows is an update recently received from Maggie Konstanski, World Relief's Disaster Response Manager. Maggie writes from Iraq, where she is currently working with local leaders to assist families forced from their homes because of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

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Since last May, this is my fourth month here in Iraq, and I am enjoying being able to come back to friendships and appreciating the comfort of familiarity. Local shop owners know me and are happy to see me, friendships are strengthening and my love for this place grows.

Some things have changed even since my last trip here. The frontline has been pushed back in some places, opening access to some locations and creating new opportunities. There are new tensions, however—new groups being targeted by violence, with civilian communities caught in the crossfire.

Another change is the temperature. Many homes here are built to stay cool in the hot summers, which means they are incredibly cold in the winter. The key to staying warm is to have four walls, a sturdy roof and a heater, luxuries that many of the displaced do not have. It breaks my heart to know that many of my friends are cold through the night, while I enjoy a warm, dry and comfortable night of sleep. These are the disparities that are so hard to comprehend. Honestly, the more I learn, the less I understand.

It is hard to explain, but even though my heart aches over these disparities and the injustice and horrors of conflict, I keep coming back to hope. While the realities of war and conflict are devastating, and the losses many, it is in these same places that I see courage, hope and love on a scale I could never have imagined. I get to spend my days with people who have lost much and suffered deeply, yet daily choose to serve others and build towards the future. I am surrounded by peacemakers. Their courage astounds me.

This week I had the privilege of training a group of local trainers who will train others in facilitating child-friendly spaces, running support groups for youth and providing psychosocial support to their communities. If the love, generosity and courage that I have seen in these people and so many others is any indication, then I believe we can pray for peace and healing with great hope. It is hard sometimes to not despair, but I now can count some of the most courageous people I have ever met as friends, sisters and brothers. What a privilege.

How a grateful Syrian family has resettled in the US

How a grateful Syrian family has resettled in the US

Everything began to change when the Syrian revolution started in March of 2011. Protests increased as the government and police counteracted and things became increasingly violent. From their home, Rami's family could hear the gunfire as it moved through the city and ultimately to their neighborhood.

The relentless dream: A refugee's journey of hope

From the time he was young, Abdulrahman idolized the American soldier as his childhood hero. He began hanging around US troops while they were patrolling the streets of Baghdad and spent 4-years working alongside Americans in combat situations, learning US military culture and ethics.