Inman Park United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Ga., sets a great example of how a small church can make a big difference in the lives of refugees, do so with imagination – and in the process get its neighborhood and a lot of other churches involved.
Every year, the 130-member congregation completely furnishes an apartment for a newly arriving refugee family, then welcomes the family at the airport and accompanies the weary, hungry travelers to their new home, where church members have dinner waiting.
The congregation solicits household goods via a “giving tree.” Inman Park UMC sets up its tree each December to capitalize on the Christmas holiday spirit of giving, but a “giving tree” could also be used at other times during the year.
Boughs are hung with colorful tags for the taking, each tag indicating a needed item: a couch, a dining table, a lamp, a pillow, a toothbrush, and so forth. Donated goods are stored by the local Church World Service refugee resettlement affiliate – Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta, or RRISA – until a refugee family is on its way and it’s time to set up the apartment.
“It’s an example of what we call a ‘reverse mission trip,’ a term coined by RRISA’s former congregational involvement specialist Tom Van Laningham,” said Inman Park UMC’s pastor, the Rev. Matthew Nelson. “Instead of someone raising, say, $2,000 to go on a seven- to 10-day mission trip overseas, he or she can use that same money to help a refugee family who’s coming here, build a relationship with the family and have a long-term impact.”
People who cannot travel can participate in a “reverse mission trip,” he said, allowing more people to be involved. “Small congregations that feel like they don’t have a lot of people or resources can do projects like the ‘giving tree’ in a short period of time. It’s also a good opportunity for medium-sized and larger churches to expand their mission outreach.
“They collect the stuff, pack it up, unload it and set up the apartment – and they’ve been involved in missions without leaving the state of Georgia,” Nelson said.
This past December for the first time, Inman Park UMC added a community involvement component, setting up a “giving tree” for 10 days in a popular neighborhood restaurant, The Albert. In addition to collecting household items and cash donations, the restaurant agreed to donate 20 percent of its sales on a designated, well-publicized “Dine Out” day to refugee resettlement.
“The ‘Dine Out’ was an effort on our part to engage the community in service for refugees,” Nelson said. “Our neighborhood is very passionate about social justice, and this was a great connection for them and for us. It created a lot of buzz in the neighborhood. We raised $700 and nearly enough furniture for two complete apartments. Moreover, as we collected all the stuff, we were astonished to see that it all matched.”
He said church and community members alike express appreciation for the “giving tree” option, commenting, “We don’t give individual gifts to each other for Christmas. We try to do something like this.”
Nelson multiples the impact of his congregation’s “giving tree” project through his service as Refugee and Immigration Ministry Coordinator for the UMC’s North Georgia Conference. In this volunteer role since 2011, he crisscrosses the region addressing congregational, district and clergy meetings with the goal of increasing United Methodist involvement with refugees.
“As they develop new ministries, I invite them to do something similar,” Nelson said. “That’s the kind of story we’ve been sharing with other churches to say, ‘Here’s a tangible, practical way you can help.’”