Center UMC Welcomes Refugees Home
By: Sherri Gragg
The Reverend Karen Jones of First UMC Center, Texas is growing accustomed to her new role as “home appliance operational guide.” Recently, she found herself standing in an African refugee’s home explaining how to use the stove. Her new friend had never seen one before. Before that, it was a washer and dryer. Last summer, as the average daily August temperature for Center, Texas hovered around 95 degrees, she arrived at home after home of refugees to find the windows shut tight and the air conditioning unit silent and still. Once inside the stifling homes, she led residents to the thermostat and explained how to cool their homes with the flip of a switch.
“They don’t teach you this stuff in seminary,” Jones said with a laugh. Jones was a Home Economics teacher before she entered the pastorate. Sometimes she can’t help but marvel at the strange convergence of her careers, but her experience in teaching domestic skills is not the most valuable tool she brings to this stage of her ministry. By far, it is her deep compassion and her unfaltering sense of biblical justice for the oppressed.
Resiliency and Courage
Through its practice of intentional recruitment of immigrants and refugees, Tyson Foods is changing the face of the rural South. At times, entire communities of refugees are relocated to formerly homogenous, tiny Southern towns. Harvest Public Media calls the jobs they fill “some of the most dangerous factory jobs in America.” (Boyce, Dan. (2017). Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat, Harvestpublicmedia.org)
When Jones reflects on the African refugees who put down roots in the small East Texas town of Center, she doesn’t describe them in terms of their struggle and poverty. She testifies to their resiliency and courage. “They are the bravest people in the world to leave everything they know, to go where they don't speak the language. They are my heroes.”
Advocating for the Oppressed
Jones has found that many of her refugee neighbors have fallen victim to fresh oppression in the United States after fleeing the violence and persecution in their homelands. The refugees great need, combined with their lack of cultural savvy, makes them easy targets for unscrupulous individuals who are eager to make an unjust profit at their expense.
Some local men in Center purchased FEMA trailers and set them up across from the Tyson factory in a get-rich-quick scheme. Before long, refugee families were paying exorbitant rent to live in repurposed, temporary disaster housing.
Jones and her congregation took action. They began to search for local landlords who were willing to rent their properties for a reasonable fee. When some of the refuges needed help with citizenship paperwork, Center UMC offered the use of the use of the church computers. When Jones explained there was no cost for the service, the refugees were stunned. She discovered some refugees had been charged hundreds of dollars for help with the immigration paperwork. “I explained to them that we were glad they want to be citizens of this country and that we were happy to help them with the process,” Jones said.
Meeting the Spiritual Needs of Refugees
Center UMC is poised to move beyond simply supplying the physical needs of the African refugees they serve. They want to meet their spiritual needs as well. Jones is working with Dr. Ernest Boamah, Director of Worship Arts at First United Methodist Lufkin, and a local Anglican priest who is part of the refugee community to provide a culturally relevant worship service. First UMC Center will provide the space, Boamah will lead worship, and the Anglican priest will preach.
First UMC Center is excited about the future. “I have been so humbled by my members’ attitudes,” Jones said. “We are in this little East Texas town, but they want to help. They want to befriend the refugees and make them welcome. I have been very proud of them.”