Living sanctuary: Charlotte church manse becomes temporary home for Afghan refugees

David Bonnema, pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church, shares the mutual learning and growth they found while partnering with a family of Afghan refugees.

Photo by Farid Ershad on Unsplash

Taking a leap

A family of nine fled Afghanistan in August 2021 after the Taliban took control of the country. Since this family offered vital assistance to the U.S. during our country’s decades-long war in the region, they were active targets for the Taliban. So they left their home in the middle of the night, carrying what they could, and traveled in secret to the Kabul airport. There, the U.S. military boarded them onto a cargo plane bound for America. After four months at a military base in the Midwest, they arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, in December 2022.

At the time, only one member of the family spoke English — the oldest son, age 19. The family consisted of four school-aged children, three young adult children, and two parents.

Unity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo submitted.

During this time, most refugees around Charlotte were housed in hotel rooms due to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Just outside the city, a five-bedroom manse sits on the property of Unity Presbyterian Church, where I serve as senior pastor. The manse was built in the 1950s for pastors to live in, but like many manses in recent years, it had fallen into disuse as pastors opted for a housing allowance.

As I witnessed all the trauma that fleeing refugees were going through, I wondered: Could the manse be used to house incoming refugees? I called a local resettlement agency to find out and found a grateful partner.

They paired us with this family of nine, and in December 2021, our congregation invited them to live, rent-free, in the church’s manse for one year. Little did we realize that free housing would be the bare minimum of what was needed. The family did not speak English and had no means of transportation, no bank account, no health care providers, no driver’s license, and no experience navigating our country’s complex bureaucracy.

In the U.S., each refugee is allocated a set amount of financial support from the government when they arrive. Traditionally, these funds are spent on housing and utility deposits, rent, groceries and other living expenses. This system assumes that the refugees should be able to cover their expenses within three months. However, many refugees are still learning English during these first 90 days. Others are dealing with the physical or emotional stresses that result from fleeing one’s country.

By providing free housing and no utility payments for one year, our congregation hoped that this family would be able to re-establish themselves in a more loving and grace-filled way.

Mutual learning

The next year was one of beauty, challenges and so much learning.

Our congregation established a team of volunteers to assist with as many of the family’s needs as we could. Since the family’s move-in day, volunteers have logged over 1,700 hours helping them. Additionally, the congregation and wider community have provided clothes, furniture, gift cards and even a used vehicle for the family.

I volunteered to enroll the four school-aged children in local public schools. I distinctly remember taking the family for a tour of the elementary school. After the tour, the second-grade son spoke angrily to his father. When I asked what he said, I was told, “He said, ‘Why did you move me to this country where I have no friends and can’t say any words? Take me home. I don’t want to go to school.’”

Unity Presbyterian Church’s manse. Photo submitted.

Conversely, the fourth-grade girl later told me through our translator “I cannot wait for school. In Afghanistan, our classrooms had dirt floors. Here — I get my own desk!”

One year later, all four students speak almost fluent English. They have all fallen in love with the school, even the youngest who didn’t want to attend, and their teachers report that they are beloved by their classmates. Two of the students have been moved to the gifted programs of their respective schools.

Other volunteers provided transportation to health department, medical, and dental appointments and job interviews, helped them establish bank accounts, taught English language classes several times a week in the family’s home, and tutored the school students. One volunteer even became the family’s driving instructor and three of the adults now have driver’s licenses.

In turn, our congregation benefitted immensely from having this family next door. The first week, I stopped by the manse to see how they were settling in. After tea and conversation, they sent me away with freshly baked naan bread. Baking naan to say thank you to volunteers became a recurring gift. They even chose to host a dinner to showcase Afghan cuisine. To this day, it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve tasted. I learned in Afghanistan that most dinners begin around 9 p.m. and last into the wee hours of the morning, though they graciously agreed to start earlier to accommodate my children’s earlier bedtimes. Over the past year and a half, they have taught me much about kindness and hospitality. The father told me “We’ve been able to get our feet under us, and in our culture, this is how we say, ‘thank you.’

Project coordinator Gail Satterthwaite, a volunteer from our church, admits the hours assisting the family have been more than anticipated, but the rewards exceeded expectations. “It has been a joy to watch the family as they experience a place where children can safely play outside the house, almost anything you need can be found at a local mega store, quality healthcare is accessible, and women can drive and be educated,” Satterthwaite said. “The project volunteers have benefited from being exposed to different cultural practices and foods and the opportunity to make new life-long friends.”

Our volunteer team relied on a theme verse that has guided them throughout the year:

“The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

Our ancestors in faith, the Israelites, were once foreigners in Egypt. As Christians, we, too, must embrace this identity of the other. God commands us to love everyone, including those who live in the United States but are not from the United States, as much as we love ourselves.

The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God — Leviticus 19:34

We told each volunteer who signed up that our job was not to convert the family. They were devout Muslims, and we respected that. Rather, we were to show God’s love through care and action.

About four months into the ministry, one of the family members pulled aside a church volunteer and asked, “Why are you doing all this for us?” The volunteer replied, “Because we believe God wants us to help others.” The family member said, “The Christianity you show is not the same one I learned about in Afghanistan.”

Six months in, the volunteer team began working with the family on a transition plan to move out of the manse. The three adult males in the family were working and they’d saved enough money.

However, when it came time to apply for rental houses, we were faced with two issues. One: the family had no credit history due to the government’s delay in assigning them Social Security numbers. Without credit scores, no landlords in our area were willing to rent to them. Two: rental prices had skyrocketed since the pandemic. For a family of nine, a four- or five-bedroom house was required. The average monthly rent began at $2,500.

As a church, we had to learn the value of flexibility. If all had gone according to plan, the family would have found their own home by January 2023. Due to the issues described, Unity extended its lease for an additional six months. This summer, the family has now moved into their own rental home in the Charlotte area.

God commands us to love everyone, including those who live in the United States but are not from the United States, as much as we love ourselves.

“Our initial thought was ‘there is so much to teach this family in acclimating them to our country,’” project volunteer Sam Sipes said. “But I now feel that I have learned as much from them, and that in this exchange process there is a fine line between acclimating them to our country while also supporting acculturation. I think we have maintained this balance.”

Will your church join us?

Although the refugee crisis in Afghanistan has largely abated, the need to support refugees from across the globe has only grown. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were over 100 million individuals forcibly displaced from their homes or country as of May 2022. Every single one of them bears the image of God. Whether the refugees are coming from Ukraine or from Sudan makes no difference. The church needs to lead the charge in caring for refugees.

Do you want to help? Start by calling your local resettlement agency. Find out what their current needs are and how your church may volunteer. Think outside the box. Do you have an unused manse you can use? Are there retired teachers willing to teach English classes? Can your church provide groceries for longer than the initial 90 days?

We cannot help all 100 million refugees who have been displaced. But, like a church with an open manse, perhaps we can help one (or nine).