by Trennis Henderson
KNOXVILLE, TN – How can the crisis of an Iraqi refugee family’s house fire help churches engage young women in missions involvement amid their busy 21st century lives?
Several congregations in the Knoxville area are discovering the answer through hands-on interaction with such ministry groups as Love World, Welcome House Knoxville and Knoxville Internationals Network.
Kimberly Poore is a member of the Love World team at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville. The missions group, which launched in 2019, is geared toward young women ages 25 to 40. She said the leadership team seeks “to educate and also provide mission opportunities for other Wallace women within our church.”
Love World’s missions focus includes ministering alongside Welcome House Knoxville, a nonprofit ministry that provides temporary housing for immigrant and refugee families in the Knoxville area.
The ministry’s primary aim is “building long-term relationships through short-term housing,” according to welcomehouseknoxville.org. Providing “safe and loving space for individuals and families in transition to permanent housing” allows volunteers “to share the love of Jesus through the ministries of hospitality and friendship.”
Cindy Hood, the founder and director of Welcome House, noted that long-term housing often is difficult to find for many refugees, especially for larger families and single women with children.
After visiting a similar refugee ministry model while on a family vacation in North Carolina, Hood said she returned home with a burden to partner with Bridge Refugee Services, Knoxville’s local refugee resettlement agency. Following discussion with leaders at Central Baptist Church of Bearden and Knoxville Internationals Network (KIN), she began working to establish Welcome House Knoxville as a nonprofit ministry.
Renting an unused missionary guest house from a local church, Welcome House officially opened in 2019 to provide short-term housing for refugees or other internationals. The ministry also recruited Sunny Ikojoh, who came to the U.S. as an international student, to serve as the minister of hospitality for guest families.
Meeting needs in times of crisis
Since opening Welcome House’s doors, “we've had several single moms, mostly from Africa, with toddlers,” Hood said. Most recently, they hosted the refugee family of seven from Iraq whose rental home was destroyed last summer in a house fire.
Volunteers from Welcome House, Love World and KIN all came together to help meet that family’s urgent need in the midst of crisis.
“At supper time, they were cooking. The mom stepped out of the kitchen and when she came back in the kitchen was on fire,” Hood recounted. “It was too much for them to put out themselves and so they just really escaped with what they were wearing. They had a few trash bags of just some things they grabbed, but most things they lost in the fire.”
After the family spent a sleepless night in a local business where the father works, KIN’s director put them in contact with Welcome House and “they were able to spend their second night at Welcome House,” Hood said. “We put out on our Facebook page what their story was and we had churches, individuals give through our website and we were able to give them gift cards. A volunteer took them shopping to buy clothing, shoes, personal necessities.”
The Iraqi father “asked me several times, ‘Is this safe? Will this be safe for my family?’” she recalled. “I assured him that yes, it was going to be very safe and that Sunny would be taking care of them – and he has.
“We are a ministry that wants to show the love of Jesus through Christian hospitality,” Hood emphasized. “However, we don't require that someone is a Christian to live in the house. But we also are very willing to tell them why we're helping them. … I feel like the best I can do is be the hands and feet of Christ in a very practical way.
“When I got the call about the Iraqi family, they needed to move in the next day,” Hood said. “So I got in contact with Kimberly Poore and she made a couple of phone calls and she and another woman were able to meet me and my family – my husband and daughter – and Sunny at the house and we just went through and cleaned the house super quick.”
When refugees or other international guests move into Welcome House, “I want it to feel like you're at a friend's house and you can relax,” Hood said. “There's food in the refrigerator, there's clean towels, clean sheets. You don't have to really think about taking care of yourself for a few hours or a few days. You can just exhale.”
Equipping and educating volunteers
Jani Whaley, executive director of Knoxville Internationals Network, said her group’s goal “is to reach the internationals through the churches by equipping and educating church members and small groups so that relationships can be built and the gospel message can be given.”
With a database of 300 volunteers, she said KIN often helps “find volunteers for the Welcome House as far as cleaning and getting supplies.”
Recalling the night of the house fire, Whaley said the Iraqi family had been living “just down the street from where I live personally. I saw the fire trucks; I saw the fire and I didn't even realize that there was a refugee family that lived in that house. It was just a few hours later I got a call stating a refugee’s house just burned down and there's five children involved.”
As a former short-term missionary to the Middle East, Whaley said, “I have a heart for all internationals, but there's something special about those Middle Eastern people that just really tugs at my heartstrings.”
After connecting with the family’s teenage daughter who speaks English, “I went over there within the hour and met the family and talked to the father and met all the children and developed a friendship right then and there,” Whaley said. The next day, “I went over to their house personally and loaded them up in my car and just picked through the rubble of their house. We took them to the Welcome House and got them situated.”
Doing life alongside refugee families
In his role as minister of hospitality, Ikojoh stepped in to assist the displaced family with day-to-day adjustments. “When that incident happened, we saw the love of Christ,” he recalled. “We don't get to choose where we shine the light. The light is meant for everywhere, taking away all darkness all around.”
Ikojoh, who grew up in Nigeria, came to the United States in 2015 to attend seminary. After working with refugee families during a volunteer mission trip, “I fell in love with that. I felt a deep sense that God was calling me into this ministry.
“I cannot fully understand what a refugee experiences. I can't even fully understand what it means to be a refugee,” he acknowledged. “But being an international student, I can identify that truly they do go through a cultural shock.”
“When we intentionally engage our international neighbors and make them feel at home, then we have been the light of Christ,” Ikojoh affirmed. “We just listen and pay attention and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we respond to these needs. I think the goal is to do life alongside these people.”
In her leadership role with Love World, Poore helps coordinate the group’s quarterly gatherings in members’ homes. Activities range from hosting missionary speakers to providing a monthly fellowship brunch for international moms.
When Cindy Hood shared about Welcome House at one of the gatherings, “I felt the Lord really just putting that on my heart to be involved,” Poore said.
While she and other Love World volunteers have served the Iraqi family and other refugees by helping clean Welcome House and provide other needed resources, Poore said she hasn’t personally met the house’s international guests. But that doesn’t diminish her enthusiasm for her behind-the-scenes ministry opportunities. “We know their story,” she pointed out, “so we feel connected to them in that way.
“Being a part of this is important to me because God calls us to be disciples, make disciples of all nations,” Poore added. “He also calls us to unite together, to bear one another's burdens.”
That powerful truth is making a practical impact for refugee families who call Welcome House Knoxville their temporary home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trennis Henderson is the national correspondent for WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union). A Baptist journalist for more than 35 years, Henderson is a former editor of the Western Recorder of the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Arkansas Baptist News state convention newsjournal.