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Welcoming the Stranger by Opening their Home and Their Hearts: Q&A with Tim and Gretchen Foley

By Nathan Spencer //

How we answer God’s command to welcome the stranger varies from person to person. For Tim and Gretchen Foley, it meant opening the doors of their home on a literal and spiritual level. 

Tim, who has traveled extensively in the past, said the experience of being welcomed into another’s home left a permanent impression on him.

“Having traveled internationally and benefited from hospitality, knowing that you’re able to go in your own room while in a new place makes a huge difference in your level of comfort,” Tim said in a recent interview. “I wanted to return that hospitality for folks in our country for the first time.”

Gretchen said her experience with exchange students as a high schooler has persistently fueled her desire to serve.

“I’m from a college town that had a big international community,” Gretchen said. “Growing up, we partnered with the international house and were paired with students who were here for several years for their education. We built friendships through shared meals and holidays. That was immensely impactful to me as a teenager.”

“To have extended relationships with people who speak a different language or have different customs and cultures to learn from is a blessing,” Gretchen continued. “I see our three-year-old playing with a child from a family we partner with. The two don’t speak the same verbal language, but the universal language of love flows through them without a moment’s hesitation.”

This childlike faith is what Tim and Gretchen have been emulating through their work as a host family for World Relief Durham. Read the interview below to learn more about their journey.

How did you first get involved with World Relief?

Tim: We heard about World Relief through an employee who is at our church.

What we heard from her really inspired us and aligned with things that we were already interested in. We’ve always have had a very strong international interest, a desire to engage with and learn from other cultures, and to serve and meet people from other cultures. Knowing that we, in this country, have so much, it seemed a perfect opportunity for us to engage in helping, but also learning.

What led you to decide on hosting families as your primary way to serve?

Tim: Shortly after we signed up to volunteer, it became clear temporary housing was one of the best ways that we could serve, and that there was a need. We had plenty of space in our house for people who needed a spot for a week or two until World Relief could find them permanent housing.

Gretchen: When we were first interested in volunteering, there wasn’t a group of us to be an apartment setup team or friendship partners. We were trying to figure out what we, as a family, could do. We greatly value hospitality. The temporary housing seemed a good fit for that – being able to help people feel welcomed and provide space when they’re first getting here while things are chaotic.

How many families would you estimate you’ve had or how many times have you hosted like that since then?

Tim: Maybe half a dozen, ranging from one night to a couple weeks. Unfortunately, our volunteering after the first couple of families aligned with the decline in refugees coming into the country. There wasn’t as much of a need for temporary housing as was envisioned.

We then partnered with [World Relief Durham] to focus on assisting people who are already here as refugees who had additional needs beyond their first three months in the U.S. They paired us with Yohana, who wanted to go to Job Corps and needed temporary housing before that transition. She came and stayed with us through that, and then she moved in with us for a year after Job Corps.

Gretchen: She also came back to stay with us on the weekends while she was at Job Corps.

Tim: She became part of our family.

Gretchen: We are also now ESL tutors to a Congolese family. We were at their apartment a couple of weekends ago to have dinner and watching our three-year-old play with their grandson was sweet. There’s the hospitality piece, but there’s also that relationship building. Seeing and experiencing our separate families become one family is truly powerful.

What is your favorite story, or family memory, of your involvement with World Relief?

Gretchen: One of our favorite experiences was also one of our hardest. We hosted a Sudanese woman and her two sons. They spoke zero English; we speak zero Arabic. We had no real way to communicate. The boys were at a very inquisitive age and so just figuring out how to manage them – not just in our house – but in our neighborhood was challenging. But with that family, our neighbors really came around and supported both us and them, which was a different experience for us. The neighborhood children befriended them despite the language barrier, and would play with the kids and ride bikes together outside. Another neighbor picked up clothes and shoes for the family from the store.  It was beautiful to watch happen in a community that did not typically interact with Africans, and who were giving out of the little they had.

You have served as a host home and as ESL tutors. Have there been any other roles that you served in?

Tim: I’ve done a handful of different things during COVID, as needed. World Relief Durham got 50-pound bags of rice. We put a bunch in my truck and helped deliver those, and we did some apartment setup because things were a little different without being able to be around people. Teams were smaller and requests were more finite and deliberate.

Gretchen: Up until our three-year-old was born, I was working on a farm. The farm wanted to donate food shares last summer, and so we connected them with World Relief. They wound up donating five food shares to some of the families in the greatest need. Every Wednesday over the summer, I along with another volunteer would go out to the farm, pick up the bags of produce and deliver it to three or four of the families that were in Durham and Chapel Hill.

As parents of young children, what would you say your hope, or vision, for the world is, and how is partnering with World Relief helping you create that vision?

Tim: It’s connecting [our children] with the broader world around them in an authentic way. Allowing my kids to learn about the world for themselves and meet new people and learn about new cultures is an important piece of that. This also helps them learn about themselves. Through those relationships, they learn who they are, and who they are in God.

Gretchen: I think there are so many levels to that question. At the first level, it’s just them as kids getting used to being around people who sound and look different from them, and not feeling uncomfortable around that. They are getting to learn about people from people directly rather than a history book, or a news article where somebody else is telling another’s story.

Tim: I also want them to grow up with a hope that the things they see aren’t intractable, and hopeless. Though the world is broken, there is hope through engagement, even if it’s just one life being changed.

Gretchen: Seeing our three-year-old’s eyes light up when he sees Yohana coming up the sidewalk because she’s coming over for the day to hang out and eat a meal with us is so sweet. And seeing him learn how to eat traditional Eritrean food like Injera with her, that’s special.

Tim: And one day, he’ll be old enough to learn about the Eritrean conflict and put those pieces together.

How have you seen your community move together this year?

Gretchen: The work that World Relief is doing right now is so vital, especially as the numbers of refugees allowed into the U.S. are starting to rise again. The farm story I mentioned earlier was something that truly inspired me with how creative it was. Even with COVID raging, people found a way to work together safely to spread love and life to refugees in our community. It may seem small in the grand scheme of the global refugee crisis, but it means the world to those families here.

If someone were to ask you, why World Relief, what would you say to them?

Tim: They do ask us, quite often. I reply with something that is simply the truth. 

I don’t know of any other nonprofit working in Durham doing so much tangibly for the community. That’s why, in addition to having a heart for the work World Relief does, we really respect World Relief as an organization. When you donate, your money is going to very important places. When you volunteer, your time is not wasted. You’re being structured into a system that adds the most value to the community and to the people that work with this service.

Gretchen: Over the last year and a half or so, I know World Relief has supported refugees even after their initial six-month financial support period. We saw that with Yohana, and she had been in the U.S. for over a year. World Relief helped her get plugged in with Job Corps. Her old case manager who was no longer officially her case manager still supported her by helping her apply to Job Corps, and then found temporary housing for her with us. That’s above and beyond what one might consider the job description.

It’s not just about getting refugees here and getting them started, to then leave them to figure things out from there. World Relief commits to the long-term walk alongside the refugee community. This is not easy, but it is so vital and speaks to their commitment to answering God’s call to welcome the newcomer.

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