A Celebration of Life
Every once in a while you meet a person who truly inspires you. Evelyn Mangham, who, along with her late husband Grady Mangham, began World Relief’s refugee resettlement program in the 1970s, was one of those people. She passed away October 5, 2021 at the age of 98, and today we mourn the loss and celebrate her life and ministry.
Born in 1922, Evelyn spent the early years of her life living in what is now known as Syria and Jordan as the daughter of missionaries. After marrying Grady Mangham, she moved to Vietnam, where the couple lived and ministered from 1947 to 1967 as Christian & Missionary Alliance missionaries.
Together, they taught Bible school and supported church planting and discipleship among the Montagnard people. They returned to Nyack, New York in 1967, where they worked from the Alliance’s headquarters. Evelyn, though, said that she felt stuck at that time— missing the people she had befriended in Vietnam and the life to which she had become accustomed.
Soon, the political situation in Vietnam deteriorated. Six Alliance missionaries were killed in 1968 as the Tet Offensive began. In 1975, when Saigon fell and the flow of refugees increased dramatically, Evelyn and Grady began receiving urgent pleas from people whom they had known in Vietnam, who had now been forced to flee as refugees. “We had to do something,” Evelyn told me when I interviewed her in 2016.
Seeing People as People
The couple tirelessly worked to advocate for refugees to be welcomed to the U.S., knocking on the doors of both the U.S. government and the various churches that had supported them as overseas missionaries.
Evelyn would often work from the hallway of the Alliance denominational offices in Nyack, calling up local churches, pleading with them to take in a refugee family. While some pastors were hesitant, many were eager to welcome refugees into their communities.
Evelyn recalls one pastor who initially declined to help, saying his church was busy working on a parking lot project. Evelyn responded, “But these are people!”
More often than not, however, local churches stepped up to the challenge, meeting newly arrived families at the airport, welcoming them into their homes on a temporary basis, and eventually helping them to find permanent housing, jobs, and everything else necessary to restart their lives in a new culture.
In a single year, Alliance churches welcomed more than 10,000 refugees who had fled Vietnam and from conflicts in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
As refugees from Southeast Asia continued to arrive, Grady and Evelyn ran out of Alliance congregations to call upon. Evelyn was undeterred. She began cold-calling pastors from the directory of the National Association of Evangelicals, expanding her outreach to Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Wesleyans, and others. When she encountered resistance—understandable in the political context, given that most Americans disapproved of the effort to resettle Vietnamese refugees at the time — Evelyn would remind them of the repeated injunctions in Scripture to care for vulnerable “strangers.
Partnering With World Relief
In 1979, this effort that had initially been coordinated by the Christian & Missionary Alliance’s CAMA Services and then through Lutheran World Relief was brought under the auspices of World Relief — the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Up until then, World Relief had been focused on empowering churches to care for vulnerable and displaced people overseas., But under the leadership of Grady and Evelyn Mangham, began its U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Grady Mangham continued to lead World Relief’s refugee resettlement program until 1987, resettling an average of 6,300 refugees annually from countries all around the world. Since then, several of Grady and Evelyn’s children and grandchildren have served World Relief in various capacities.
The refugee resettlement program that Evelyn helped to found has now resettled roughly 300,000 refugees to communities throughout the United States.
In the coming months, World Relief anticipates receiving between 7,000 and 10,000 individuals who have recently fled Afghanistan in an evacuation with many historical parallels to the refugee crisis in Vietnam that sparked Evelyn and Grady Mangham’s ministry. The local church remains central to our mission, just as it was when Evelyn and Grady founded the program.
The World Relief family throughout the globe grieves Evelyn’s death — but not without hope, confident in the resurrection through Christ that was Evelyn’s greatest hope. And we celebrate the incredible legacy of Evelyn and Grady’s life and ministry.
Even into her last years of life, living in Florida, Evelyn always would greet refugees from the Middle East with a smile, singing with them the Arabic songs she remembered from her childhood.
As refugee resettlement has become increasingly controversial in recent years, including within evangelical churches, Evelyn was asked how she would advise Christians who felt reluctant to engage in refugee ministry:
Well, respond to what Jesus said, that’s all: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger” — refugee — “and you took me in… Inasmuch as you did unto of the least of these my brethren, you did unto me.” It’s simple obedience.
*elements of this reflection were drawn from a 2016 article written by Matthew Soerens for Christianity Today.
Matthew Soerens is the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, where he helps evangelical churches to understand the realities of refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values. He also serves as the National Coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that advocates for immigration reforms consistent with biblical values.