Wes and Jane Cassidy are missionaries. But not the kind who travel overseas. The Cassidys do their "missionary work" right here in the United States from the familiar confines of their suburban home.
Many American Christians are looking for practical ways to fulfill the Great Commission without traveling around the globe to do so. For the Cassidys, that has meant opening their home to the numerous foreign refugees who are seeking a new life of freedom and relative tranquility in this country.
Only two days after touching down at O'Hare International Airport, Cvijetin and Zdenka Gligerevic from Tuzla, Bosnia, settled in comfortably at the Cassidys' home near the Chicago suburb of West Dundee, Illinois.
As is typical with refugee families, the Gligerevics, both 48, are more reserved than their children, Boris, 22, and Bojan, 21. And as is often the case, the youth understand more English than the elders: Bojan, handsome and 6–foot–6 inches tall, knows the language best, having picked up words and phrases from English–speaking security forces, and from watching Jerry Springer on television in his homeland.
On this Saturday morning, the Cassidys are serving as World Relief refugee hosts through their local church, Harvest Bible Chapel. They have opened their home eight times before to not only Bosnians but also Iraqis, Sudanese, Cubans, and Serbians who were trying to begin a new life in the U.S. With a dozen children of their own—six of whom still live at home—the Cassidys are used to a full house.
As volunteer hosts, the Cassidys help acclimate the refugees, who by definition are people driven out of their own country due to persecution because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs. World Relief advises hosts to befriend the newcomers, but not to allow them to become too comfortable; to defuse the apprehension about the new culture, but encourage the family to be in their own apartment within two weeks as an important step toward independence. In the past five years, Harvest Bible Chapel has sponsored more than 25 refugee families.
"The Cassidys are an excellent example of how a family can demonstrate Christ's love in tangible ways," says Dori Dinsmore, executive director of the World Relief Chicago office. "Host families and a church sponsor are absolutely critical in making resettlement work."
Helping others comes naturally to Wes, one of 14 children himself. "I was raised in a culture of helping whomever the Lord brings in your sphere of influence," says Wes, a 55–year–old part–owner of a small business that manufactures customized metal parts. "It's our hope to impact our guests with a sense that we're living for Christ in a real way."
This morning, Bojan, a guitar player who wants to be a professional musician, sings along with the praise songs playing in the home, although he doesn't understand some of the lyrics. He asks what some of the words such as "worship" and "adore" mean.
The Cassidys invite refugees staying with them to participate in a Bible study and prayer meeting held in their home on Thursday nights. They also gently encourage refugees to accompany them to Sunday–morning church services. "We pray that the Lord will open their eyes to who Jesus is," says Jane.
Making the rounds
Later in the morning, Jane, 43, drives to Chicago as she does every few weeks to visit with recent houseguests. An Iraqi family, Lafteh and Halimeh Almousawi and their six young children, arrived a few months ago. The neighborhood is a genuine melting pot, with Chinese, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Greek shops located within two blocks of the family's three–story apartment building. As Jane enters, the children smother her with hugs. Lafteh kisses her hand and cheek.
Jane has brought along two large plastic bags full of clothes collected from others to help outfit the family. She tenaciously tracks down used clothing and furniture to assist refugees.
Before arriving in the U.S., Lafteh and his kin spent three years in Iran after being blacklisted in Iraq. He says Saddam Hussein ordered his cousin to be hanged, making it difficult for him and other relatives to find work.
The family has no phone, no vehicle, no work, and they comprehend little English. Still, the Almousawis are content with their cramped quarters. The children are in school, intensive English classes are preparing Lafteh for job opportunities, and, perhaps most importantly, everyone is safe.
The next stop is a housing complex two blocks from Lake Michigan. Jane visits the studio apartment of Valentin Martinez, his wife Gicela Gato, and their 16–year–old son Yanier, who arrived two months earlier from Cuba. Gicela kisses Jane's arms when she arrives.
Valentin, a retired construction worker, ran afoul of Fidel Castro and spent three years in prison. Gicela, a former special education teacher, wipes away tears as she shows Jane photos of the recent wedding of her 23–year–old son who remains in Cuba.
Refugees sometimes spend their life savings and sell all their belongings to bribe officials in fleeing their homeland. All incoming refugees have a sponsor, but World Relief, which assists an average of more than 5,200 families annually, is the only evangelical resettlement agency authorized by the State Department. Because of tighter security restrictions since the terrorism attacks of 9/11, only 28,000 refugees were admitted into the United States last year, down from a high of 132,100 in 1992.
Sponsoring congregations typically pay rent for refugees the first three months. Refugees are immediately eligible for food stamps and public aid, which includes a medical card and cash assistance.
In some cases, especially with the now–famous "Lost Boys" of Sudan, Jane acts more like a mother than a host because they are so unaccustomed to modern conveniences. The boys, among the thousands left to fend for themselves after the murder or capture of their parents in Sudan's bloody civil war, had no idea how to clean a toilet or use a refrigerator. Jane's eyes mist up as she remembers the condition of some of the boys when she first met them. She recalls how one, Maketh, still has a scar from injuring his foot while fleeing his home as a 5–year–old orphan.
"He had no one to protect him, no one to comfort him, no one to clean or bandage his wound," Jane laments.
Amazingly, though, those who escape from foreign lands with limited understanding of American life always seem to find jobs soon and make it on their own.
Joseph Wol, a Sudanese Lost Boy who is now 22, arrived two years ago. An orphan since age 5, he spent nine years in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps. Now he drives his own car and is a supermarket produce worker while majoring in computers at a local community college. "Jane provided clothes for us," he says. "She taught us how to cook."
The Cassidys' first guest, Melvid Porcic, who came from Bosnia in 1999, had extensive health problems and stayed six months. He suffered a gunshot wound to his leg during the war with Serbia and developed a bone infection. Porcic arrived not knowing anyone in the United States or a word of English. Now, he speaks English fluently and works in airport security. "I was like a child," Porcic recalls. "Jane and Wes took care of me."
'This house is family'
Back in the Cassidy home on Saturday evening, the Gligerevics recount the ethnic tensions that caused them to lose their home, as well as job and educational opportunities in Tuzla, the largest Muslim city in Bosnia.
Cvijetin, a Serbian furniture maker, spent two years in jail. Both Boris and Bojan left girlfriends behind, but they know their future is in the United States.
Alethea, the Cassidys' 17–year–old daughter, says hosting refugees has opened her eyes. "People staying with us has helped me understand suffering," she explains. "I can't believe what a step of faith it must be to start over."
The prayer Wes offers at dinner is full of gratitude to the Lord for his provision. Jane adds a personal note to the Gligerevics: "We have you in our home because God put a love for you in our hearts, even before you came."
After dinner, Cvijetin musters a compliment with a couple of English words he has learned. He then leads his family in a burst of applause for Jane's homemade chicken potpie.
"This house is family," Bojan says. "When I'm old and have a family, I hope it is just like this."
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today's Pentecostal Evangel.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.