photography by Jay Fram

God’s call to welcome the stranger has become a bridge from St. Louis to Bhutan, Nepal, and India.

As they read, Todd Fizer couldn’t help but notice the tears welling up in their eyes. For many, those letters from home were a link to relatives they hadn’t seen in two or three years — a bridge between the displaced Bhutanese living in Nepali refugee camps to a community of old and new family members at New City Fellowship Church (PCA), St. Louis.

A Stateless People

According to the U.S. State Department, during the past five years the United States has welcomed almost 324,000 refugees from around the world. More than 51,000 have come from Nepal, originally displaced from Bhutan, a tiny country sandwiched between China and India.

For the past 30 years, a group of Bhutanese had found itself passed back and forth between two countries — Bhutan and Nepal — with citizenship in neither. Originally Hindus from Nepal, they were recruited in the late 19th century to come to Bhutan to cultivate the land. But in the late 1980s, Bhutan’s Buddhist majority, fearful of being outnumbered by the Hindus, began imposing stricter citizenship standards and accused many ethnic Nepalese of illegal status. Fear of imprisonment and persecution drove a mass exodus of Bhutanese back to Nepal. But Nepal, weakened by recent civil war, was ill-equipped to grant them citizenship and instead shuffled them off to refugee camps.

In 2007, the U.S. offered to begin resettling 60,000 of these 100,000 stateless Bhutanese.

Blueprint from Antioch

Ganesh Magar was only 2 years old when he moved with his family from Bhutan to Beldangi refugee camp. Until three years ago, life in the camp was the only one he knew.

“We didn’t have any comfortable place,” he explains in broken English. “We weren’t allowed to go outside of camp. … It was like [being] a slave.”

But then in 2009 he was given the opportunity to make a new life for himself in the U.S. — in St. Louis. The first of his family to arrive in America, Ganesh was excited about the opportunities that seemed to abound: “When I came to America, I find many things here, better life to take care of family. It is really good in America.”

Through other Bhutanese who had arrived in St. Louis several months earlier, Ganesh found his way to New City Fellowship: South City, a church that was fast becoming a haven for the outcast.

Since its founding in 2004 as an offshoot of New City Fellowship (University City) — a large multiracial PCA church with a 20-year history of racial reconciliation and “welcoming the stranger,” (Leviticus 19:34) — New City (South City) has discovered an entirely new opportunity for reconciliation, with large numbers of refugees and immigrants pouring into South City from Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Nepal.

“A huge [portion] of Scripture is written in the context of struggle, poverty, trial, warfare, whether it was Abraham going to Egypt or Jesus going to Egypt,” explains New City lead pastor Kevin Vanden Brink.

With this context as a starting point, New City has adopted a vision for a church community that looks much like the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-25) — a community where members came together from many places to contribute to the common life of the kingdom.

And They Came

When New City (South City) was planted, a large contingent of Congolese and Liberian refugees transferred from the University City site. During the next several years, they remained a core part of the church community. And then in January 2008, New City connected with a group of Burmese refugees and added this group to their number. Not long after, they discovered that St. Louis was becoming a settlement for a growing number of Bhutanese refugees as well.

As Fizer and others from New City began to build relationships with their new Burmese and Bhutanese neighbors through pickup soccer games and other casual situations, they soon discovered that the language barrier prevented them from explaining the gospel to those who had come from a Hindu background.

“We could communicate on a general basis,” Fizer says. “But when it came to biblical matters … it was really hard to communicate with them.”

So instead, New City began sharing the love of Christ in practical ways. Under Fizer’s leadership, a team of about 30 New City members and those of other local churches banded together to help their refugee neighbors by driving them to doctor’s visits, showing them how to open a bank account, demonstrating how to fill out a job application, tutoring, and helping parents navigate child-rearing in American culture.

By 2008’s end, more than a hundred Bhutanese had settled in St. Louis. And by February 2009, the first Christians arrived. That’s when the gospel began to spread, as the Christian Bhutanese explained the message of Christ to their Hindu neighbors.

Ganesh Magar was one of these, having come from a Christian family who was part of the church community in the refugee camp. He was invited by other Bhutanese to visit New City, where he met Fizer and quickly got plugged into the church community.

Unlike Ganesh, Lal began attending New City long before he made a decision to follow Christ. Although his brother-in-law was an outspoken Christian and his children had learned about Christianity while in the refugee camp, Lal, a cultural Hindu, didn’t want to dishonor his parents by renouncing their religion. But through his brother-in-law’s influence and relationships with others at NCF, Lal eventually committed his life to Christ. He and his family were baptized Feb. 5.

A Patchwork Culture

The process of welcoming the stranger has been more like sewing together a patchwork quilt than stirring together a perfect pot of stew.

“We’re in constant learning mode,” says Vanden Brink. “You never feel like you have it figured out. There are always new opportunities, new challenges.”

Some challenges have been extreme, as in the case of spiritual opposition from Hindu relatives. One 14-year-old boy has been faithfully attending New City and wants to join the church but has been told by his family that he will be kicked out of the house if he does.

Other challenges have been more subtle.

With 18 languages represented at the church, New City has had to adjust. Various parts of the worship service, including several songs, are in Burmese, Nepali, English, French, and Swahili. The sermon is in English, with translation provided in Burmese. During this time, the Bhutanese go to a different part of the building to hear the sermon in their language.

The language barrier and educational disparity have forced New City to develop its leaders over a longer time period. Many of the Bhutanese and Burmese who would make suitable elders and deacons had few educational opportunities in their countries of origin.

“There are leaders in our church who only have a third-grade education,” Vanden Brink says.

Along the way, New City has lost a few congregants because of denominational differences, such as a group of Burmese who moved to a different church because they preferred a Baptist worship style. Others, who were settled in St. Louis by the government, eventually decided to move to a different part of the country to be closer to family members or better jobs. Still, “we’re called to welcome the stranger, if that’s for a day or a year,” Vanden Brink says.

From the get-go, New City has been cautious not to create an “us vs. them” culture.

“We try not to talk about ministry to immigrants and refugees,” says Vanden Brink. “We belong to each other, and we need each other.”

In fact, because of the presence of so many refugees in the church, he says, the faith of the “typical middle-class American has exploded as a result of knowing people who have gone through so much.”

Vanden Brink explains: “Most of us who have grown up in the U.S. have a hard time relating to that. When we are one church that has experienced different things, discipleship is richer. … I can’t imagine a better place to plant churches than among those who are immigrants and refugees. There is this intimate understanding of God’s commitment to them. … They might be here because of oppression or war in their own country, but what others have intended for evil, God has intended for good. God is doing things in our lives because of relationships with these new members of our church.”

Friends on the Other Side

During the past four years, as Fizer has invested in the Bhutanese community, he has reaped more than he has sown, once living with a Bhutanese family while he was moving houses, and often eating meals in the homes of refugee families.

“That’s why I’ve put on 30 pounds,” Fizer joked.

Last year, Fizer — and New City — took significant steps in their relationship with the Bhutanese community. In March 2011, Fizer took a journey to Nepal and India to meet friends and family of the New City Bhutanese.

“If God’s bringing people to us, perhaps He’s also calling us back to those countries,” Fizer concluded.

One of their first stops was to the Beldangi III refugee camp, where Fizer met many of Ganesh’s relatives as well as others connected to New City.

Writing in his journal, Fizer summarized these encounters: “More than once, tears filled eyes as they received photos and letters from their loved ones that they missed. But also their tears would be followed by a smile. We were welcomed into every home. … We share stories about America (as they call it, not USA). We tell of their friends and family. They are so happy to hear the stories.”

After preaching at two churches in the camp and visiting several other camps, Fizer crossed the border into India to meet with Kharga Magar, a 32-year-old pastor who is related to 34 New City attendees, including Ganesh. Since his father became a Christian almost 20 years ago as a result of a miraculous healing, Kharga had grown into a determined advocate for the gospel in the village of Ultapani in India’s Assam district. Fizer was instantly impressed by Kharga’s soft-spoken leadership and compassion for the downtrodden. As a single man, he had recently taken three widows and a crippled girl into his home because they had nowhere else to go.

It was through his new friendship with Kharga that Fizer began to develop a vision for New City’s future partnership with the churches in Nepal and India. Upon returning to St. Louis, Fizer and other church leaders got to work planning the next stage in the budding friendship between New City and the churches in India and Nepal. The first step was to contribute funds to help Kharga build a separate home for the widows.

“We’re really careful about allocating funds,” Fizer admits, “but we felt this was a good relational connection, and it aligned with our vision to care for the orphans and widows.”

Next up: A training center in St. Louis to provide theological instruction to Bhutanese refugees to prepare them to be elders and deacons. At the same time, they want to establish a similar training center in India to equip future pastors to plant new churches, as most pastors can’t afford a traditional seminary degree.

Other dreams include an orphanage, a Christian school, and medical clinics.

With Them

During the past five years, St. Louis has welcomed more than 2,800 refugees. Of that number, 662 are from Bhutan. To date, New City’s 300-member congregation in South City is almost half refugees, with about 20 percent Burmese and 20 percent Bhutanese. Of the Bhutanese, there have been 33 new converts to Christianity, and 50 have joined the church. Many have come for GED classes, tutoring, or youth group. Almost all have come because of relationships formed during meals, birthday parties, and community celebrations.

“It’s been an incredible journey that God’s taken us on,” Vanden Brink says.

On March 25, Fizer took scissors and cut the ribbon to inaugurate the opening of the home for orphans and widows in Ultapani.

What began as a simple response to God’s call to welcome the stranger has now turned into a two-way bridge extending all the way from St. Louis to India. The American church has come to realize that it needs the church in Asia, and the church in Asia has come to realize that it needs the church in America. For Fizer, Vanden Brink, Ganesh, Kharga, and many others, there is a fellowship of brothers and sisters that extends far beyond ethnic, cultural, and experiential barriers. And like the church in Antioch, they have one thing in common: “The hand of the Lord was with them.”