Cameron Mullens (ThM, 2011) paces across a room in a worn, weathered church building. He gestures and scrawls on the whiteboard in front of more than a hundred students. Women with heads covered with teal, crimson, or black glittery scarves sit in one section, while other women scatter themselves among the rest of the group. On one side of the room, brilliant marigold Congolese attire contrasts with the black robe of an Ethiopian priest. Some men stand in the back of the room, while an older man on the end of a row clutches his prayer beads.
The students repeat after Cameron, as he reads a Bible story phrase by phrase in simplified English: “Mary and Martha were friends with Jesus. Their brother was Lazarus.” As the group reads over the story, Cameron and others act out parts. He discusses the biblical account with the students. After highlighting Jesus’s identity and the salvation he offers, Cameron concludes the lesson—as he always does—with the words, “Learning English is good, but learning about Jesus is much, much better.”
A Job No One Wanted
An unlikely cross-cultural worker, Cameron has lived in north Dallas his whole life. After marrying his high school singing partner, Kaitlyn, he started his seminary studies while he worked with church youth. His wife’s compassion and her first teaching job at a school with a diverse student population led her into a refugee ministry among her students’ families and friends. Her growing outreach included teaching English and helping these new residents fill out job applications, apply for a driver’s license, or register children for school. Their tremendous needs led Kaitlyn to quit her teaching job to work with these newcomers full-time.
Cameron helped her during evenings and on weekends, but they both knew she needed someone to interact with the men, teach, and transport students. Cameron couldn’t escape the conviction that he was that man. He said, “When I gave up my job with the church youth, many people immediately applied for that position, but no one else applied to raise support and work with refugees.”
Cameron considered his new vocation a complement to his seminary studies. He said, “Interacting with refugees expanded my view of the body of Christ today, while my church history classes gave me a view of the other two thousand years of the church.” He expected a significant part of his role with these displaced people to involve evangelism, but he found himself interacting with a Burmese pastor and two Sudanese pastors. All of them professed Christianity and led about three hundred people in their congregations, but they all lacked basic biblical knowledge. Two of the pastors did not know the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. All three men welcomed Cameron’s devotion into their lives. And he realized his work was influencing not just these men, but also their congregations.
By the time Cameron finished seminary, the Mullenses regularly invested their lives in about two hundred refugees through English instruction, after-school programs, practical help, and Bible instruction. In 2011 they founded For the Nations Refugee Outreach (FTNRO), and since that time, the staff has grown, as has the number of newcomers they reach. In 2017, FTNRO reached 2,000 new residents in four locations in and around Dallas. The staff now numbers twenty-four, including Tristan Guthrie (ThM, 2003) and Todd Lindquist (ThM, 2017). FTNRO also collaborates with other churches that provide individual volunteers, both young people and adults, to help with classes, special outreaches, and summer programs.
Filling the Gap
While refugee resettlement agencies offer thirty days to six months of follow-up for new residents, it takes two to five years for these newcomers to become independent and productive. FTNRO fills the gap for many families. Eight levels of English instruction, a General Educational Development (GED) class, and a citizenship class equip adult students to function in English, but the staff also helps them with practical needs such as obtaining medical insurance, getting rid of bedbugs, or replacing a lost green card.
For example, when the FTNRO staff first met one Somali refugee, she had no electricity and no food. Her husband languished in jail, and neither she nor he knew why. Her children couldn’t attend school because they lacked some of their immunizations. So the staff showed her how to apply to reconnect her electricity. They assisted her in getting immunizations for her children and enrolling them in school. And they connected her with a food pantry. Finally, they helped her and her husband understand and resolve his legal problems—unpaid parking tickets from another state. Now, years later, she and her family thrive on their own in Seattle, Washington.
In addition to the midmorning Bible story lesson at FTNRO, Cameron teaches the GED class. One of Cameron’s former students completed several sections of her GED exam, enabling her to get a job at a bakery.
An Iraqi student went on to get her associate’s degree at Richland College in Richardson and found employment in the area. Many students leave the FTNRO English program early because their improving skills enable them to better provide for their families. Each year 30 percent of FTNRO-trained students begin to work at sustainable jobs, 20 percent begin to attend college, and 48 percent advance to the next level of English and literacy. After-school and summer children’s programs help 85 percent of participating refugee children to catch up to their peers within two years.
Faith Taking Root
Cameron has invested his creativity and DTS education in the Bible instruction integrated into every level of FTNRO’s programs. Four days a week for more than one hundred days a year, students listen and interact with brief lessons from the Bible curriculum he designed. “We want to articulate the central points of Christianity clearly,” Cameron said, while outlining the three-year program he developed. One year of the curriculum focuses on events of the Old Testament coupled with related New Testament passages in a chronological format. The second year covers the life and work of Jesus. And in the third year, attendees learn systematic theology. The program educates the students who identify as Christians and shares truth with the Muslims, Buddhists, and followers of tribal religions who attend.
Teaching new residents who have limited English and come from diverse cultures puts Cameron’s seminary education to the test. “Can I communicate the Trinity to semiliterate shepherds from Sudan?” Cameron asked. “If these concepts are so important that we learn them in seminary, they are important to teach here.”
After hearing the gospel again and again, men and women from different faiths do consider the new ideas they’ve heard. Many Muslims admit they have a sin problem and some acknowledge they need a Savior. Cameron recognizes that what he teaches now may influence the church in the cultures represented for years to come. “We’ve seen the faith take root in families who have never heard the gospel before,” he said. Other refugee ministries have noticed this fruit. Several of them now use FTNRO’s Bible curriculum in their education programs.
Cameron and his staff navigate the changing environment of refugee ministry with grace and humility. “We still don’t feel like we’ve figured it all out yet,” he said. And his vision is for more than just the refugees he has grown to love. He and his team see a growing demand to educate Americans about their newly arrived neighbors and help them sort out facts from fear.
The ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the immigrants they serve also varies from year to year. The current student body consists of about 40 percent Middle Eastern, 30 percent African, 20 percent Burmese and Nepalese, and 10 percent from other areas. The organization’s flexibility has allowed them to respond and grow in the midst of constant changes in the refugee population and national, state, and local politics.
Building for the Future
This year, FTNRO expects to serve 2,000 to 2,500 displaced people by providing them with English lessons, Bible teaching, outreaches, and acculturation help. Because the student body outgrew their rented facilities, the new school year began in a newly completed facility, which meets the need for more classrooms and gathering spaces. Students and staff are thrilled with the new building in Garland, Texas, which has room to grow with the ministry.
At the beginning of a school day last year, Cameron spoke of what keeps him coming back each day: “This is a need-driven ministry. If we don’t show up tomorrow, a lot of people won’t learn English. Many won’t get help with a job application or a problem. And they won’t hear the gospel.”
Editor’s note: Read more from guest writer Beth Barron.