Kabul airport attack strands Afghan contacts of Christian humanitarians
One of the families at the gate of the Hamid…
OKLAHOMA CITY — When Clay Hart, the Memorial Road Church of Christ’s international outreach minister, invited Afghan refugees resettled in Oklahoma City to the church’s Thanksgiving outreach dinner, he expected about 100 people to sign up — not 325.
Hart learned of the increase two days before the dinner in an email from Mark Chan, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate who serves as Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City’s director of refugee resettlement.
The news sent Hart to his knees.
Once he recovered from the shock, Hart contacted fellow Memorial Road ministers, seeking reinforcements.
“I knew that Andy Lashley and Terry Fischer would know what to do and who to call,” Hart said. “I mean, not even Ghostbusters was gonna help us.”
The 2,300-member Oklahoma church unknowingly laid the groundwork for the dinner in September when the congregation partnered with Catholic Charities to adopt 15 Afghan refugee families moving into the area. Memorial Road members furnished apartments, helped with transportation and offered to be friendly faces to the refugees now living in a foreign country.
When the church’s 30th annual international Thanksgiving dinner approached on Nov. 21, Hart didn’t hesitate to invite the “new neighbors.”
Islamic dietary restrictions weren’t entirely unfamiliar to the dinner. The previous year, the Memorial Road church had accommodated Turkish immigrants with a halal meal, which stipulates a specific way to butcher meat and prohibits the use of certain animal products.
The day before Hart received the email with a new estimate of guests, Marty Karguth had already started cooking food for the dinner. Between the Afghan refugees, Chinese and Turkish immigrants and volunteers, the 24 halal turkeys she had purchased weren’t going to be enough.
Turning to Google, Karguth calculated the new proportions she would need to feed the group of about 550 people: 200 pounds of potatoes; 32 turkeys; 16 pounds of spinach, lettuce and cherry tomatoes; gallons of gravy and salad dressing; and 20 bags of cranberries.
It was a feast unlike any other the church had hosted.
Members volunteered to prepare food in shifts, starting Thursday and ending on the day of the dinner (the Sunday before Thanksgiving). Volunteers wheeled the turkeys all over the building to use the church’s 10 ovens, some of which were located in children’s classrooms for baking crafts.
Busy overseeing and preparing the main meal, Karguth requested that willing members bring dessert. She didn’t anticipate receiving 750 slices of pie.
The response from the volunteers overwhelmed her.
“I was just moved to tears numerous times with the number of people who came and what they were willing to do,” Karguth said. “And just the way the whole thing came together was just amazing. Only God could do something like that.”
Oklahoma Christian University, The Springs Church of Christ and the Edmond Church of Christ loaned vans and drivers to help with the transportation from hotels and apartments to the Memorial Road church building.
When refugees gathered at the church two hours before the meal for fellowship, Terry Fischer, the church’s outreach minister, described the environment as chaotic — in a good way.
Children who had been cooped up in hotels for weeks descended upon inflatable bouncy houses, games and crafts that volunteers had set up in anticipation of their arrival. A separate room allowed women to drink tea and talk in a quiet space separate from the men. Men wandered between rooms with children and women, visiting together.
With limited translators available for the two languages Pashto and Dari, predominant among the refugees, and illiteracy challenges with written translation apps, the Memorial Road ministers encouraged volunteers to communicate with a universal language — the smile.
“We hope eventually that we will become such trusted friends that we can have spiritual conversations with them as well,” Fischer said. “But even if that never happens, we go back to Matthew 25 where Jesus said, ‘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 welcomed me in.’ At the heart, we want to do that.”
Memorial Road members attended that Sunday night’s service in the church auditorium as the sun set between 5 and 6 p.m. Elsewhere in the building, Afghan men knelt and performed their evening prayers before dinner.
Hart and other ministers had known the Islamic devout might want to pray. The ministers chose not to set aside a space for evening prayers among the spaces they provided for fellowship, but they respected the refugees’ expression of faith.
Hart said he believed showing respect and curiosity about their religion encouraged the refugees to be reciprocal about Christianity, a belief that was supported the following Sunday, when one of the men at the Thanksgiving dinner returned to attend worship. He was not the only one to express interest. Another refugee who knows English contacted Hart with questions about a book in his hotel nightstand that he’d been reading — a Gideon Bible.
But none of this would have been possible without prayer, Hart said. It’s the first place he recommends congregations start when considering working with refugees.
“The church needs leaders who lead the way in turning God’s houses — which are his people, not the buildings — into houses of prayer for all nations,” Hart said. “And we need to set aside our ethnocentricity and our patriotism and be citizens of the kingdom of God. First we seek God’s kingdom, which includes all the nations of every tongue and tribe and language and people around the throne worshiping the Lamb; then we’re doing what God wants us to do.”
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