HESSTON, Kan. — At half past midnight on Aug. 18 at Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport in Wichita, a welcoming group searched for a Congolese refugee family.
As passengers spilled into the concourse, five greeters from Hesston Mennonite Church saw the family they had been praying for and waiting for — Mary Noella and Alex Salumu and their children, Shania, 6, and Daniel, 2. After a 32-hour flight and years of waiting in a Kenyan refugee camp, the family had finally reached safety.
The greeters waved a welcome sign in Swahili and embraced their new friends and neighbors. After hugs and smiles and help from an interpreter, the group made its way to Hesston, where a furnished apartment and a hot meal awaited the weary travelers.
The Hesston community had also eagerly awaited this day. Hesston Mennonite initiated working with Episcopal Migration Ministries-Wichita to launch the resettlement ministry. Other congregations joined them, including Whitestone Mennonite Church, Hesston United Methodist Church and West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge.
Steering committee members are learning the Matthew 25 invitation to welcome the stranger is a labor of love. It weaves through a labyrinth of cultural orientations, as people from different parts of the world learn to live together.
Kendra Alison, a social worker supported by Episcopal Migration Ministries and the family’s caseworker, notes that refugees who resettle in a new culture can feel like they are on a different planet.
“We saw this opportunity through rose-colored glasses at the beginning,” she said. “Finding the apartment and furnishing it was only the first step in a very long journey. You can bring a family here, but helping them to live here is a whole different story.
“They are essentially starting from scratch, materially and relationally, so the job of the church is to embrace them and to help them move forward.”
Michele Hershberger, a Hesston Mennonite Church steering committee member, is learning to embrace the process.
“We’re not sure what success looks like,” she said, “but we are striving to be faithful to the commitment we’ve made.”
Jean Selzer, another Hesston Mennonite steering committee member, said: “Most of us were busy before the family came and now want to make room in our lives for our new friends. When you get a call that the family needs a ride to an appointment, you rearrange your schedule.”
Extending healthy hospitality means empowering the newcomers, said Marla Schmidt, who attends Hesston Mennonite and is field office director for Episcopal Migration Ministries-Wichita, the agency helping the family resettle.
EMM-Wichita is one of 30 local resettlement sites under the National Episcopal church. The agency resettles refugees from five countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma/Myanmar, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan. It provides intensive assistance for three months and auxiliary assistance for up to five years.
“The two main goals are self-sufficiency and independence,” Schmidt said. “That is often difficult for communities who are being asked to wrap around these families with caring presence. That caring is so critical to the families growing their capacities, yet they need to balance their caring with coaching the family to care for themselves.”
Part of that caring involves understanding that any newcomer to a community wants to belong, to feel safe and to have opportunities. “These are human desires of people everywhere,” she said.
Universal and practical
Belonging is a universal need fulfilled in practical ways, like learning what to do with American food. Alison is helping Salumu and Noella learn to cook unfamiliar foods in new ways.
“When people drop by canned goods, they don’t know how to prepare them,” Alison said. “So I invite them over to share some recipes and help them understand the stove, which they were afraid of at first.”
There are also transportation issues the committee didn’t foresee, said Jerry Weaver, steering committee member from Whitestone. Families resettling in Wichita have access to taxis and a bus system. In Hesston, they rely on community members and bicycles.
“When they are ready to purchase a vehicle, they will finance the insurance and shoulder all the other expenses that come with owning a car,” Weaver said.
Noella and Salumu are taking English classes. Del Hershberger, a steering committee member from Hesston Mennonite, does not know Swahili but provides language aid.
Salumu and Noella have found jobs, he as a factory worker and she as a hotel housekeeper. Shania is in elementary school.
Bonds grow stronger
Key to the idea that Hesston could welcome its first refugee family was John Murray, former pastor of Hesston Mennonite.
“Having Marla Schmidt in the congregation gave Hesston Mennonite access to structures already in place,” Murray said. “We did not have to reinvent the wheel. We simply had to find our place within a system that was already operating.”
Other nearby Mennonite communities have also prepared the soil of welcome, including Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Schmidt said. It has furnished the apartment for one family and is preparing to do the same for another.
All feed the bonding with others of the global human family.
“So many ‘ah ha’ moments happen for people when they realize how many more commonalities than differences they share with the so-called strangers,” Schmidt said.