This article originally appeared in August-September ’17 issue of Owensboro Living Magazine.
According to statistics from the International Center of Kentucky, more than 42 million people across the globe have been uprooted from their home country by conflict and persecution. In the last two years alone, the displacement of people throughout the world has grown larger than the displacement from World War II. Since 1981, more than 10,000 refugees in both Bowling Green and Owensboro have been assimilated into life in the United States through the work of the International Center. However, due to recent cuts in funding and staffing reductions, this work has been much more difficult to accomplish. That’s where Dr. James Litsey – the former director of the International Center – comes in. Litsey, along with a partnership of churches passionate about refugees, identified the need for local churches to step in and help with the process. This year, he formed the Welcome Project, a Kentucky corporation (soon-to-be non-profit organization) that combines practical assistance with the love of Christ in helping church groups welcome refugees to the Owensboro community.
To see how the foundations were laid for this project, we’ll need to jump back to 2009. From 2009-2012, Litsey and his family served as missionaries in West Africa. When they returned to Owensboro, the refugee resettlement program had already begun. “Having the occasion to be outsiders ourselves, we kind of knew what that dynamic was like,” Litsey said. Litsey and his wife jumped in to volunteer with the International Center by assisting with resettlement protocol, driving refugees to appointments, and generally helping them adjust to the Owensboro community. A couple of years later, Litsey and his friend, Danny Gray, helped bring the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” class to Owensboro. A 15-week course that focused on global and cultural issues within Christianity, “Perspectives” opened the hearts and minds of Christians from all over Owensboro who participated. This course helped cultivate a heightened awareness of the “world-sized role” that God has assigned to His people, whether they serve at home or across the globe (see perspectives.org/ for more details). Through this class, many Christians in local churches felt a calling to serve refugees, and began volunteering at the International Center.
Litsey and Gray soon learned about a non-profit organization in Louisville called Refuge Louisville that assists with refugee resettlement. Refuge Louisville is a faith-based organization that helps minister to holistic needs while connecting refugees to local volunteers who will walk with them through every step of the grueling 90-day resettlement process (see http://www.refugelouisville.com/ for more details). “As things became a little tight with finances for the International Center…we became more and more interested in getting something like that started here in Owensboro,” said Litsey. He then met with the pastors at Pleasant Valley Community Church, Bellevue Baptist Church, and Owensboro Christian Church to cast his vision for his plan and secure financial support…and thus, The Welcome Project was born.
In Matthew 25:35 (NIV) Jesus said: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” According to Litsey, these statements are at the heart of The Welcome Project’s focus, showing God’s love for the hungry, thirsty, and the outsiders. Litsey said that “God notices those folks…and He also notices when people represent His heart to them in a good way.” To the Welcome Project, welcoming strangers is just as important as feeding the hungry and thirsty; it’s a basic human need.
So, what exactly does The Welcome Project do on a daily basis? This organization trains church groups to help facilitate the mandatory 90-day refugee resettlement program for a refugee family. According to Litsey, the protocol is quite a bit of work, ranging from registration at the Social Security Office to signing up for English classes at a local church. For churches looking to live out Matthew 25:35, this is a perfect opportunity to help care for refugees by welcoming them to Owensboro, and helping them transition into their new lives here.
How can my church get involved? If your church has a heart for the nations but doesn’t know where to start, just contact the Welcome Project. “Step one would be to find a group in your church that would like to take this on as a project, contact the Welcome Project, and we’ll sit down with them, train and acquaint them with the resettlement protocol…give them some cross-cultural ministry…and we’ll spend some time going through Scripture together,” said Litsey. After that, the Welcome Project will act as a liaison between the church group and the International Center. Finally, Litsey will discuss the task list of what to accomplish in the 90-day period. Groups can select which parts of the task list they would like to complete.
Several churches are already getting involved with the Welcome Project, including Pleasant Valley Community Church. Matt Woodfall, board member of the Welcome Project and one of the Pastors at PVCC, said that his church’s plan is to get their small-groups involved in serving new refugee families as they come to Owensboro. Woodfall credited Litsey’s passion with helping get PVCC and other churches on board with this ministry. “James’ heart for the church to minister to refugees is why we are committed to this new work.” Through every step of the 90-day process, Litsey and the Welcome Project are there to provide information and help churches care for refugees.
“It’s particularly important for churches to remember that God is God of all the nations…all the peoples,” Litsey says. “So, this is just a great way for churches to get some hands-on learning with that concept. These are real people, made in God’s image, loved by Him. These are people for whom Jesus died.”