GOSHEN — Imagine that tornadoes tore through Warsaw, displacing its 14,000-some residents.
Imagine all of those people — no money, no extra clothing, no belongings — arriving in Goshen looking for help.
Families — mothers, fathers, children, grandparents — living under the Ind. 15 overpass, setting up tents in the city’s parks.
Doctors and nurses, who have no homes themselves, try to help at hospitals and clinics that are overwhelmed with dehydrated children, who haven’t been able to get to clean water.
Imagine lines of people along Main Street waiting for hours to get food for their families from The Window or from emergency aid trucks.
That’s exactly what’s happening in the city of Erbil, Iraq, only on a larger scale. But it wasn’t tornadoes that tore through the homes of an estimated 1.2 million refugees and internally displaced people. It was the Islamic State.
It was scenes of this continued crisis that brought a Goshen pastor to tears and began a new mission that included a nine day-long journey for him and seven other men to Iraq. The men delivered locally-donated medical supplies and took $65,000 with them to purchase food, bedding and shelter for their brothers and sisters.
How it began
Grace Community Church Lead Pastor Jim Brown keeps up with the news and is an avid reader. He believes it’s important to know what’s going on in his local community, as well as the world.
News articles, videos and photos coming out of Iraq were shocking, grim and full of horror as Islamic State militants terrorized and murdered in invasions of communities. At the same time, Brown was preparing for a series on the book of I John, called “Light It Up,” “It was like the spirit of God tapped me on the shoulders and said, ‘Stop. Think about what you are reading right here,’” Brown said.
Those verses were I John 3:16-18: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possession and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions in truth.”
“That morning it got to the point where I just couldn’t read another article. I found myself actually sitting at my desk weeping, thinking I thought somebody’s got to do something. You begin to process, what is that?” he said.
It was in the midst of this that Brown realized that someone was Grace Community Church.
“We are a church that wants to be on the front lines,” he said. And for Brown, that meant literally getting “boots on the ground.” He felt led by the Spirit to do more than just give money — which is great to do — but, he knew more was needed.
So, Brown called his executive administrator/Missions & Outreach director, Ted Rondeau. Rondeau quickly educated himself on the refugee/IDP situation in Iraq. “Like Jim, it just ripped my guts out,” Rondeau said.
He got online and made phone calls to contacts around the world to see which Christian group the church could connect with in Iraq.
Rondeau said, “It was kind of sad. Because, as I was making those calls good people, good-hearted people, doing great things in the world, but everyone was saying, … “Oh, we’re pulling our people out. You don’t want to go there.
“I’m like no, you don’t understand — emotionally, we’re already there emotionally. We feel the compulsion of the Spirit of God to go. I’m asking you for information on how to get there and who to connect with.”
It was through “a friend of a friend” that contact was made with an Iraqi Christian woman — the mother-in-law of Pastor Malath of Alliance Church in Erbil, Iraq. And in talking with Malath, Rondeau was able to confirm the news reports of the crisis and “affirming the desperate need for help.”
Rondeau said Pastor Malath let him know that a team providing relief from Goshen, Indiana, would be welcome.
“That was one thing both Jim and I were clear on. We feel compelled to help,” Rondeau said. “We want to help in a way that’s actually helpful. We don’t want to get in the way; we don’t want to be a burden. We didn’t want to create a national incident with our presence. Our prayer was, God if it’s useful for us to be there, so be it. Here we are, send us.”
The men contacted the State Department, military resources and other agencies for security purposes as they were making plans.
“We’re not stupid, but we’re crazy,” Brown said. “We had many people saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ … But if we operated our lives that way, we wouldn’t do anything for the Lord. … If God wanted us to do it then he would go with us.”
Brown and Rondeau learned that the items needed by the refugees and IDPs are available for sale in Erbil — it’s just there is no money. The refugees and displaced people fled their homes without taking much with them. And even those who had money — or jewelry or goods that could be sold for money — were robbed of it by Islamic State fighters during their trek to Erbil. Brown said that even retirement cards, which allow residents to receive money, were stolen so they don’t even have that.
Brown added that Islamic State is just as bad as they are being portrayed on the news.
Islamic State militants would go into a community and say, “Deny the name of Jesus Christ … or you’re out of here or we’ll put some terror tactics on you and kill one of your family members,” Brown said
So Christians and even some Muslims fled because they didn’t want to join ranks of ISIS, he said.
Rondeau said, “We talked with some local Muslim people who were ashamed of how crazy, radical the ISIS movement is.”
After all of the research, it was time to present the idea of taking a team and cash to Iraq.
Brown called his pastoral leadership team together and talked about the mission — Grace4Iraq. They also set up an online giving site where 100 percent of the donations would go to refugees.
On the following Sunday morning in August, Brown presented his message of I John, asked the church to give. He also asked for volunteers to travel to Iraq.
Brown said, God moved in certain people’s hearts and they volunteered to be a part of the team.
In the end it came down to eight men.
In a matter of two weeks the mission went from planning to boots on the ground in Iraq, he said.
“It’s amazing what happened in a short amount of time,” Brown said.
Sixty-five thousand dollars was collected. And 48 hours before leaving, the team learned that medical supplies were desperately needed not just for the refugees but for citizen soldiers who were fighting Islamic State militants. These are not regular military soldiers, but regular men who are defending their homes and country from ISIS, Rondeau explained.
“Dads and brothers are saying, ‘Not on my watch,’” Brown added.
“When we got the list of supplies needed, we realized it was supplies that we have readily available,” Rondeau said. “So we put the word out and people started scrounging up what they had.
Local medical facilities ended up donating 16 boxes of supplies.
The eight men, including Brown and Rondeau, hid the money on their persons and baggage and headed off to the Chicago for a flight into Istanbul, Turkey, and then onto Iraq. But not before saying goodbye to their families, who supported them 100 percent, the men said. “There were a lot of tears, we hugged longer,” Brown said. “We prayed over them. The thought in our mind is … we might not see each other again.”
Brown said, “We really believe in Philippians 1:21 when Paul said ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
But with all of those people needing help, each man knew they couldn’t stay home.
“It was quiet when we pulled away in the van,” Brown said.
Boots on the ground
“From the time we hit the ground it was clear the needs were immense,” Rondeau said. It was also clear that $65,000 was just a drop in the bucket.
“We’re grateful for the contacts we were able to make,” he said. Malath’s Alliance Church in Erbil was one of those contacts. Malath is a young man from Baghdad who moved to Kurdistan and started a new church in an area that was closed to Christianity previously. “And then this unfolds,” Rondeau said. “Now his church is inundated with people.”
“Iraq is ripe for the Gospel,” Brown said, “because they’re Ground Zero. The Christian church has always flourished under persecution.”
The team prayed that God would direct their path, using Isaiah 30:21 as their mantra: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
Listening to that voice led the men to hundreds of encounters.
Rondeau said they were prayer walking the city one day. They had passed a tea shop, when one of the men on the team said they should go back to the tea shop. The team did. “We got to know who was in that tea shop …,” Rondeau said. “All of these men, they were all older gentlemen. Come to find out they were all from the same community that had been taken over by ISIS and pretty much — the best way to describe it, the leaders of the city — the county councilmen, the head of the street department, the head of the fire department — all of these leadership men of the city who had been displaced now from their community by ISIS were grouping up.”
The Grace4Iraq team didn’t have an interpreter with them at that time, but one of the men in the tea shop could speak some English.
“The Lord brought us into that moment,” Rondeau said. “We sat down. We drank tea with them.”
The team through the interpreter asked if they could pray for them. The about 50 to 60 men in the tea shop stood up. They prayed. And then men put their hands over their hearts and started patting. It’s a cultural expression of sincere thanks, Rondeau said.
Another time, the team had purchased $11,000 in food one day and that led to a family expressing their appreciation by letting Brown name their daughter. He picked the name Grace.
The team in their journeys saw refugees alongside the road, under overpasses, in vacant buildings, in tents — anywhere they could find a place to lay their heads. “So we’re sitting together as a team, trying to discern,” Brown said. The team included Pastor Malath and another pastor. They asked themselves, “What can we do?” Winter is coming and in another two weeks school would be starting. These refugees in the schools will be pushed out.
They started brainstorming and the idea of permanent shelter came up. Shelter that would restore dignity to these people. Many of the refugees the men talked to were professionals — doctors, lawyers, botanists, business owners — the middle class.
“It was that “ah-ha” moment —shelter, that’s what we can do,” Brown said.
So the team decided to see if they could lease some buildings. With a couple of days left on their trip, the team went to see what was available. They used a Realtor. “We found ourselves sitting in a realty building with an Iraqi Realtor — all eight of us in this room.”
“Out of that came an idea that God gave us to go into this apartment complex and rent rooms for $500 a month,” Brown said. “A startup cost of $2,000 would bring in a stove, refrigerator, table and mattress.” Each apartment can fit two families. Plus there would be a manager, who would eventually be a campus pastor.
This would bring these people off the street, give them a place to live for six months, plant a church with a campus pastor and connect him with Pastor Malath.
Brown said, “And so before we left, because of resources that came in, we were able to secure six apartments with a campus pastor.
“Our desire is to see 20 more apartments we could resource. The total cost is around $115,000, where for six months these refugees can live, be cared for and actually plant a church and potentially evangelize this whole apartment complex. It was amazing.”
He later added, “Before we left, God gave us a plan to take refugees out of their tents, off of the streets, put them into apartments and give them dignity and a place to call home and care for them for potentially up to six months.”
On the Sunday after returning, the team addressed the church and Brown told them of a goal to create 200 apartments for 400 families and to plant a church.
“And even so see Muslims run to Jesus,” he said. “It was one of those moments where we said only God could set up something like this. … We were able to take the light of Christ to a very, very dark world,” Brown said.