Cindy Schlueter dropped by a recently resettled Afghan family’s home in Columbia, with clippers to trim up the boys’ hair.
The parents and children were kneeling on their colorful rugs, absorbed in prayer.
The oldest teen noticed the crucifix pendant Mrs. Schlueter was wearing and asked, “Do you pray?”
“Yes, I pray,” she responded.
“Me, too,” he said.
God was present, and they both knew it.
“We were on the same page,” Mrs. Schlueter vividly recalled. “For someone in their situation, there can be nothing more meaningful to know that the person sitting across from you in your home, who speaks a different language, who’s cutting your brother’s hair, prays to the same God.”
Mrs. Schlueter is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia, which recently began sponsoring its second refugee family from Afghanistan through Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s (CCCNMO) Community Sponsorship program.
Community Sponsorships have been an essential part of helping Catholic Charities resettle more than 250 Afghan refugees in the area since Sept. 26.
Community Sponsorships enhance the agency’s ability to resettle people, and it builds community support for its work.
“That’s where community sponsorship is really critical,” stated Samantha Moog, director of CCCNMO Refugee Services. “In order to resettle all of these people, we need churches, organizations, groups and individuals in the community to work with us.”
Home at last
Kyrell and Dr. Michaela Newell had bought, restored and lived in an originally foreclosed home in Jefferson City when Dr. Newell was hired as executive director of St. Nicholas Academy.
The academy, conducted in partnership with Catholic Charities and with St. Peter Interparish School in Jefferson City, is a boarding school offering the opportunity of an excellent education to children who can use the help.
The couple are active members of First United Methodist Church, one of a group of congregations serving together in a Community Sponsorship for refugee families in Jefferson City.
The home the couple bought had been vacant since they moved into the St. Nicholas Academy building.
“We were waiting for an opportunity to do something nice with our beloved renovated home, something creative and different,” said Dr. Newell.
Now, one of the families from Afghanistan lives there.
“God had a plan all along for this,” Dr. Newell stated.
She and her husband now visit the family a few times a week, contributing essential fellowship to the exhaustive list of services the Community Sponsorship group provides.
“We come and have tea, say ‘hi’ and play with the kids,” she said.
Absent a common language, she and the other women bond over fashion, soccer fandom, and a love of being with children.
Even with 11 people now living there, the Newells’ former home is filled with love and joy — “and honestly, a level of peace and tranquility that I don’t think would be there without Christ’s presence,” said Dr. Newell.
She had never experienced the level of hospitality that is common in Afghan culture.
“At first, I felt uncomfortable with it,” she acknowledged. “But then I realized that they really find joy in it.”
For people feeling called to help, Dr. Newell recommended letting go and letting God take charge.
“It’s like a roller coaster to say yes to God,” she said. “It’s a blast! It’s still scary like a roller coaster, but it’s way more fun to say yes to God, with all the ups and downs (learning and growing) that comes with it.”
“What Jesus would do”
Sarah Alsagar is a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, which is part of the ecumenical Community Sponsorship group.
When asked to help the arriving family of refugees get settled, she thought back to the work her father had done as a member of the parish’s Social Concerns Commission to help resettle refugees from the Congo about 20 years ago.
“I remember the incredible act of service he and others in the parish did to assist those gentlemen who were trying to make a better life for themselves and their families,” Ms. Alsagar stated.
Warmed by those memories, she could not help but say yes to helping these new refugees begin their new life here.
“It is without a doubt what Jesus would do, and what He wants us to do as followers of His teachings,” she said.
She doesn’t dare imagine what the arriving families are going through, “but it must be just a little bit easier if you have people who are genuinely invested in your success and show you kindness and compassion,” she said.
Other participating Jefferson City congregations include: First Baptist Church, Wesley United Methodist Church, the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, Oasis United Church of Christ, and Living Hope Church.
“The Lord’s work”
Rev. Dr. Steve and Becky Buchholz have been involved in ministry for nearly half a century.
As such, “every day is an experience of stepping out of one’s comfort zone,” stated Rev. Dr. Buchholz, pastor of congregational care for First United Methodist Church in Jefferson City.
He noted that many of the people who are being resettled had to leave their homeland after the United States withdrew its military presence last year, because they had worked with the U.S. government and their lives were suddenly in danger.
“The least we can do for them is help them establish a new life in our country,” he said. “This is humanitarian work.”
The Buchholzes helped resettle a refugee family from Vietnam in the 1970s.
“That was such a rewarding experience that we felt that we needed to help again and draw from our previous experiences,” said Rev. Dr. Buchholz.
He said helping “these kind, deeply appreciative people” is a spiritual experience.
So is working toward a common goal with people who understand and worship God differently.
“We have learned that regardless of religious doctrine, theology or ecclesiology, the main focus of the Christian faith is mission and ministry,” he said. “We share a common love for the Lord, and a desire to reflect that love to one another, and now especially to these refugees.”
He called to mind how the people who are being helped place their hand over their hearts and gently pat their chest in the universal gesture of love and gratitude.
“We see Christ on their faces,” he said. “I see Christ in the hearts of the refugees and in all the volunteers from the various churches who are doing such great work with the refugees.
“No volunteer is seeking to gain glory or praise — we are a community team doing the Lord’s work together on this project,” he said.
He pointed to Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40 — “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me.”
Mrs. Schlueter and her husband Bob joined Sacred Heart Parish this past June, shortly after moving to Columbia.
“I must say, Sacred Heart is one of the most generous and open-hearted parishes I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “We haven’t been here very long, but what stands out to me is the amount of outreach this parish does. It’s truly amazing.”
For several years, volunteers from the parish have spent time each Thursday evening helping people from all over the world learn English.
Mrs. Schlueter has now become one of those volunteers.
“The need is overwhelming right now,” she stated. “With the influx of new people, each volunteer is helping multiple students.”
The time they spend is only enough to work on basics and essentials, helping people with vastly different levels of education learn how to strike up conversations and ask for what they need.
“I’d say we have 10 or 12 countries represented each Thursday night,” said Mrs. Schlueter. “It sounds hard, and I’m not a teacher. But honestly, once you get through the awkward phase, it’s pretty obvious what you need to be helping people learn.”
The need is so great that Catholic Charities and the Adult Learning Center in Columbia are working together to recruit and train more volunteers to help teach English to refugees.
Mrs. Schlueter believes it’s well worth the effort.
“I’ve made a commitment to myself and to Jesus that I would be more willing to venture outside my comfort zone,” she said. “That is part of your faith walk. You have to get out of your lane in order to grow.”
She and fellow Sacred Heart parishioner Pat Gerke are co-coordinators for the parish’s refugee Community Sponsorship.
Volunteers serve on committees devoted to various aspects of helping the refugees become as self-sufficient as possible, as quickly as possible.
Catholic Charities provides considerable guidance and assistance to the volunteers.
Mrs. Schlueter noted that Community Sponsorship requires a hefty commitment of time and energy, which is why it’s good to have as many volunteers with as many backgrounds and specialties as possible.
“Your objective for volunteering, of course, is to help people,” she said. “But the warmth of the relationship you get to experience in the process simply overwhelms you.”
She spoke of hugs and of children proudly reciting their “A-B-Cs” to show their desire to learn the language of their new homeland.
The volunteers cooperate with each other, taking on unexpected tasks as needed.
“It’s completely uplifting to see how many good, generous, loving people there are that you have the pleasure of doing this with,” said Mrs. Schlueter. “We’re all working together. And God is always providing. Always. Always!”
“Open hands and hearts”
Ashley Wiskirchen, CCCNMO’s new communications director, attended a welcoming celebration with the Jefferson City Muslim Community, part of the ecumenical Community Sponsorship group, hosted the day after several refugee families arrived.
People from each of the cooperating congregations attended.
“Our agency and these families are so blessed by these volunteers — their willingness to serve, their open hands and hearts to encounter those in need, their flexibility to meet those needs, sometimes under time constraints or last-minute changes” Mrs. Wiskirchen stated.
She said the work is built on relationships, trust and compassion.
“As I watch these relationships grow, I am filled with so much hope,” she said. “It is a beautiful thing to witness people from different faiths, backgrounds, career experiences, ages and abilities come together and serve our new neighbors.”
Mindful that prayer is as essential as the work, Mrs. Newell asked for prayers for the refugees to be able to overcome the many “little frustrations” that come with resettling in a new country.
“I pray for them to be at peace,” she said. “I pray for their health. And for them not to feel lonely!”
Mrs. Schlueter suggested praying “for everyone to understand how sacred these people are and be more sensitive to the fact that they are here out of necessity.”
“They are happy to be here, but they are also carrying a lot of pain,” she noted. “I know that through this sponsorship, they will be safe, fed, warm and taken care of. Their needs will be met. We just pray for everyone to be kind and compassionate to them while they go about the work of integrating into this society.”
Rev. Buchholz suggested praying “that God will give us the ability to meet the refugees’ needs: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, as well as their physical needs.”
“My prayer,” said Ms. Alsagar, “is that these families can find peace and comfort in our community, and that we can grow in our faith through service to them.”
For information about Community Sponsorship of refugees, visit:
For additional assistance with resettlement efforts, the public is encouraged to donate by texting “WelcomeMO” to 91999, giving online at cccnmo.diojeffcity.org/give, or mailing a check payable to CCCNMO to PO Box 104626 Jefferson City, MO 65110-4626.