There was always a tug on Sara’s heart toward the most vulnerable people, whoever they might be in the world. As the outreach minister at her church in San Angelo, Texas, she has tried to help those in her community understand how they can respond to the needs around them. This year an opportunity arose through her studies in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College that evolved her perspective on who the vulnerable are and what it can look like to serve them.
She was invited to be a part of an interagency response to the first wave of Afghan refugees arriving on U.S. military bases after their evacuation from Afghanistan in August. The sudden influx of refugees meant agencies were trying to pull together resources quickly and volunteer programs became vital to welcoming new arrivals. Government, non-profit, and faith-based organizations came together to work for the good of this extremely vulnerable population.
“There were so many wonderful spirit-filled moments through the entire experience,” Sara said about her three-week stay on the Air Force base in San Angelo. She was tasked with practical work of processing arrivals on the base, being one of the first faces they saw except for the military that had helped them through departing Afghanistan and arriving in the U.S.
It was far more than just signing people in, though. Sara said she had the opportunity to sit with families and listen to their stories. “I would hold their hands, touch their scars. Just being afforded the opportunity to step into that space with them was incredible.” She had the chance to pray with several families. She said everyone she offered to pray with welcomed the prayer. “The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable when stepping into these spaces,” she said.
As families arrived on the U.S. military training base with room to spare, the volunteers helped them settle into barracks. Long-term solutions for families were still being worked out. Resettlement agencies are running up against challenges of finding affordable housing and the lack of capacity for already stretched-thin agencies.
One poignant response to her presence there, Sara noted, was that more than one person tried to offer her a gift, something tangible to show their gratitude. She remembers one, in particular, who kept insisting on giving her a beautiful shawl that Sarah just couldn’t accept as she knew the woman would need it as the temperatures began dropping in the fall. “I felt like she needed me to receive something from her,” she says and finally agreed to take a face mask to remember her by. Sara shared it truly touched her soul deeply to be so near to the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit, (Psalm 34:18), and to be someone they laid their souls bare to. It was holy ground to stand on, indeed!
The three weeks on the base were just the beginning for Sara. She plans to pursue a position serving a global non-profit serving immigrants and refugees after finishing her studies. She’s been able to write an Op-Ed about the experience for the local paper and is excited to see what doors in the community it opens. She’s also had the opportunity to speak about her experience at the church where she serves. She says the church was willing to send her because of her role in outreach but others aren’t as willing to step in and serve. Yet, she’s encouraged by the conversations she’s having. She says some people are a bit hesitant and fearful of new people entering the community. But every conversation has been filled with curiosity and wanting to understand better, and that is an amazing start.
She says she has seen more of a willingness in her rural community to extend a helping hand to people from Afghanistan because of their willingness to assist the U.S.military. “My prayer is this openness can extend to other populations in the future,” she said. “Oftentimes in America, we tend to live with blinders on. I want to become part of pulling the blinders back.”
When she flew out of the location where she had been serving, she noticed a family from Afghanistan waiting for the flight. She was able to connect with them and while she hadn’t met them on the base, they had been there and were on their way to the next place they would settle. They ended up being on the same row together and she said it was wonderful to see the process of this family’s resettlement coming full circle.
She says she’s excited to see what the stories of our new neighbors from Afghanistan will hold as they begin their new lives here in the U.S., and she prays that the collective church will rise to the occasion and receive the gift of opportunity to extend Christ-like welcome!