TEMPLE TERRACE—They fled their homeland of Afghanistan, terrified and clinging to loved ones. The lives they had built had been destroyed—homes and belongings, demolished; friends and family members, slaughtered. There was no turning back, but moving forward was anything but certain.
Last fall as the Taliban invaded Afghanistan, thousands of refugees began arriving in America, with many starting their lives anew in the Tampa area.
There, Mission Hill Church in Temple Terrace welcomed the refugees, offering love and friendship and helping with day-to-day challenges and practical needs.
Church members have volunteered to help Afghan refugees in various ways, from basic tasks like driving them to medical appointments and the grocery store to helping them find housing and teaching them how to drive so they can get a driver’s license, Lead Pastor Paul Purvis said.
“It’s all of the basic needs that we take for granted,” said Purvis, who also serves as the current president of the Florida Baptist State Convention.
‘Love of Christ in tangible ways’
“They’re coming into a new culture and would be lost if they didn’t have loving hands helping them through this process. We try to be very intentional in what we do. Always at the core is the desire to reflect the gospel and demonstrate the love of Christ in tangible ways with no strings attached,” he said, explaining that many of the Afghan refugees are Muslim.
Helping refugees is nothing new for Mission Hill members, Purvis said. They have been doing this for years. The church’s reputation has led state agencies and organizations to contact the church whenever this type of need arises in the area.
“Tampa has consistently welcomed refugees from around the world, both formally and informally,” the pastor said.
Mission Hill, he said, “has been on the front lines” of ministering to refugees who find their way to Tampa from throughout the world.
Ministering to the recent Afghan refugees is “a continuation of what we have been doing,” said Purvis, who has served the church since 2011.
All believers can help refugees, making it easy for the whole church to get involved, Purvis said.
Believers “can help without going to seminary or having a lot of cultural education. They can be missionaries right where they are in their little corner of the world,” he said.
Mission Hill is an international congregation, with about 67 nationalities gathering for worship services, providing what Purvis calls “a little taste of heaven right here in Tampa.” The church has both a missions pastor and an international pastor, who partner together to lead the refugee ministry.
“It’s an opportunity to reach internationals in Tampa, but also a missional opportunity to communicate the gospel to their family members and culture, wherever that may be,” he said.
Since last fall, the church has helped about 50 Afghan families, said Zak Moussa, director of prayer and international ministries at Mission Hill. This included a big welcome event last year where the church donated about 85 gift baskets filled with food, gift cards and staples. Working with other charitable groups, the church will host a large Thanksgiving event in November.
Moussa said communication is the biggest hurdle the refugee families must overcome as most do not know any English. To assist refugees and immigrants, Mission Hill hosts a series of classes, including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and a U.S. citizenship class, both run by the adult education department of Hillsborough County Public Schools.
The church also offers classes Monday through Friday for refugees and asylees to learn the English language, basic skills and workplace readiness in preparation for local jobs. An international conversational English class, where parables and truths from the Bible are used to practice English, is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
And when the refugees need help after hours – such as transportation to the hospital – they don’t call the settlement agencies; they call Moussa.
“The agencies always turn to us to see if we can help,” Moussa said. “Sometimes that means getting up in the middle of the night and helping them. Whatever we do for them, we try to show them the love of Jesus in all that we do.”
‘Global and going’
Myles Dowdy, Florida Baptists’ lead catalyst for missions and ministries, is thankful for churches like Mission Hill who are faithful and intentional in carrying out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
“Our Florida Baptist churches are definitely engaged in ministering to people who are coming from all over the world,” Dowdy said.
“We’re global and going, but we’re also global and going across the street. When they’re loving their community, they’re loving people from different parts of the world at the same time.”
“When you live in a community that is 25% Muslim, those driven by fear or distrust have already moved on. In our case, this is part of who we are in our ministry context and missional culture, so I don’t feel like this has been an issue here,” he said.
From a historical perspective, Purvis said there is no better time for churches to minister to Afghan refugees.
“In the past it has been hard to get the gospel to Afghanistan. We have workers in our denomination who have sacrificed greatly to be able to present the gospel there, but it’s been minimal since 9/11.
“We now have the opportunity to reach those same people under the shadow of our steeple. It’s essential for churches to get involved.”