Kentucky Conference churches step up to assist Afghan refugees

April 11, 2022
By Alan Wild
Seven churches across the Kentucky Annual Conference have stepped forward to assist refugees from Afghanistan who were forced to flee the country after the summer 2021 withdrawal of U.S. support and the subsequent government collapse, and more than 100 other churches across Kentucky have offered to play supporting roles.

The churches are partnering with two agencies, Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the International Center of Kentucky. KRM has offices in Louisville, Lexington and Covington; the International Center has offices in Owensboro and Bowling Green.

“The hope is we create the awareness of the need for our churches to be sponsors and host organizations,” said Rev. Brad Smart, the Kentucky East District Superintendent. As Dean of the Bishop’s Cabinet, he started a conversation with Revs. John Hatton, Mark Dickinson and Jay Smith, the District Superintendents in Heartland, South Central and Owensboro, respectively.  

In autumn 2021, Hatton sent a survey to all the churches across the Kentucky and Red Bird Conferences, explaining the situation with the Afghan refugees and seeing if they were able to help, either as host or supporting churches. He ended up with seven host churches to actively assist and more than 100 that said they were willing to help.

The host churches tended to be situated in larger cities, and many of the churches offering support were located in more rural areas where Afghan refugees were unlikely to resettle, Hatton said, but they are still willing and able to help.

The seven host churches are:
Broadway in Bowling Green
Centenary in Lexington
Christ Church in Louisville
Fuente de Avivamiento in Lexington
Highland Ft. Thomas in Northern Kentucky
St. Paul in Louisville
Settle Memorial in Owensboro

Each of the host churches received a grant of between $2,500 and $5,000 from the Conference’s Refugee Fund, which was set aside as part of the Missional Offering during the 2019 Annual Conference. The grants are used for expenses involved with aiding the refugees, Hatton said. Also, every partner church has been connected with a host church, he said.

“It’s just such a blessing that in the middle of a pandemic, we’ve had so many churches reach out and want to help folks in a very vulnerable and scary position,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a refugee.”

Here is what the seven churches have done or are planning to do:

Highland (Fort Thomas)

Rev. John Bowling said that when he arrived at Highland in 2012, he “knew nothing about Northern Kentucky or Highland Church. I quickly learned this was a church interested in helping others,” including its heart for refugee ministries.

“To know we are involved in a refugee ministry is to get a glimpse into the soul of this congregation,” Bowling said. “It’s a church that cares for each other and enjoys getting together and eating together and laughing together.”

When they first learned about the opportunity to assist the Afghan refugees, Bowling contacted Tom Yocum, a church member who works with Richard Mason and a handful of others who make up Highland’s Ministry Team.

In December 2021 they reached out to the local office of KRM – which was in the process of opening an office in Covington. Kelsi Sievering, the local Community Resource Coordinator, partnered them with an Afghan family of six, a husband and wife and their four children – three girls and a boy ranging in age from 1 to 7.

“It all happened very quickly,” Yocum said.

The family is from the northeast city of Khost, Afghanistan, a relatively peaceful part of the country. But when the Taliban arrived in town, one of the first thing they did was steal the family’s car. (The Taliban are a radical fundamentalist offshoot of Islam closely aligned with al-Qaeda, which staged the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.)

The family started fearing for their safety, so they made it to Kabul’s airport and were part of the massive, frenzied exodus when the Taliban took over. (KRM requested that the family not be identified because of concerns about family still in Afghanistan.)

Mason met them when they arrived by bus from Indianapolis in late autumn. KRM had arranged for temporary housing and since then has set them up in a rental. The church has been involved in helping them get settled with furnishings, including a washer and dryer. Mason has been visiting weekly to help with transportation, shopping and English lessons. Language is the biggest challenge they have faced, as the family speaks next to no English.

One of their first interactions was taking the man to the grocery. “It just touched my heart to see someone from far away in living conditions very different from ours be presented with the opportunity to see a modern American grocery store overflowing with choices for everything you could think of that you would want for your family,” Mason said.

He said they almost never got out of the store: They started to leave three times and as they were walking out the door, the man would get distracted by something else available for sale.

Mason said he’s been impressed with the generosity of his fellow church members. They have stepped forward with money, property, furniture and clothing. “People feel really good about supporting something local that their church has been involved in.” Yocum said one family bought the family a new washer and dryer, as well as bicycles for the girls. The bikes were delivered to Yocum’s house and he assembled them.

Mason said the family initially needed his help with simple tasks such as laundry. “If you don’t’ speak English, operating a washer and dryer can be a pretty big deal.”

Bowling said it’s important for our churches to be involved in this type of outreach ministry – and not just for the recipients.

“For any of our congregations to be involved in this kind of ministry sends a strong message to unbelievers or those whose faith wavers,” he said. “It communicates, powerfully, the truth of who we are called to be: not to just talk a good game but demonstrate the life of discipleship.” 

Sievering is grateful for Highland’s heart for service. As of early March, 32 of 36 clients in KRM’s Covington office were Afghans, and they have been preparing for a second – but much smaller – group to arrive. Kentucky received 78,000 in the first wave and is likely to get between 5,000 and 10,000 in the second wave, she said. (Churches interested in learning how they might help with future refugees can go to for information.)

“Tom and Richard and their group have been so fundamental in making sure that this particular family’s needs are taken care of,” Sievering said.

“Our volunteers are where we get things done.”

St. Paul (Louisville)

Rev. Darren Brandon, Senior Pastor at St. Paul, said the church has partnered with KRM to shepherd Mohammad and Fatima Ali and their nine children – seven girls and two boys ranging in age from 2 to 23. “Personally, it’s just been really moving to hear their stories,” Brandon said.

St. Paul has a long history of involvement with social ministries and social justice, Brandon said. When the word went out about helping the Afghan family, more than 40 church members stepped up to offer their help. “This group of volunteers has just been generous, going above and beyond.”

Several of the key volunteers from St. Paul recently shared their story: Brandon, Gail Henson, Joanne Milo and Jon Fleshman (who are married), Brad Matthews, and Amy Johnson. The volunteers all have not only a heart for serving but professional backgrounds that lend themselves to this type of ministry.

Henson, a communications professor at Bellarmine University, said this family has caught her attention because of their circumstances. “I just think it’s been remarkable,” she said, explaining that they have focused on more than just daily routine but also leisure activities, such as taking them to Louisville Mega Cavern.

Matthews, a retired Jefferson County Public Schools administrator who has worked with the family on teaching them English, said it’s an easy family to love. They have responded and adapted, which has fed church members’ desire to help even more.

“It was amazing the number of folks at church who said, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this,’” he said, adding that people stepped up with minimal recruiting. People in the congregation have bought them bicycles and curtains, among other things.

Brandon said he’ll never forget Nov. 30 – the day the family arrived – as church members scrambled for clothes, food, and other basics. The travelers were so hungry, the team had to quickly plan another grocery run, he said.

Henson said “culturally appropriate” food for the family has included potatoes and eggs. Johnson, a retired wetland research scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers, had just gone with the family that day and had bought tons of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The St. Paul team said the family is highly motivated to become self-sufficient: They have been known to ride their bicycles in the snow to shop on their own. Their resiliency and resourcefulness have been impressive said Milo, a retired Army civilian who spent 26 months in Afghanistan.
Johnson said it is an absolute delight to be visiting the family at 3 o’clock when seven of the kids “slam through the door” after a day at school.
Fleshman, who spent time in the Army in military and civilian roles, said they anticipate staying in touch with the family even after they fully transition to self-sufficiency. The church helped a Syrian family five years ago and has remained in contact.

“You develop a lasting friendship with them,” Fleshman said, even though “you’re not in as close a friendship as at the very beginning.”

Henson also touched on the independence aspect of refugee ministries. She said one thing that she thinks they have learned is that the church’s role is not to “fix” the new arrivals, but to teach them how to become independent as quickly as possible.

Henson related that Fatima Ali asked for a sewing machine so she could work from home. It happens that KRM has a program called STITCH that collects anything sewing-related – machines, fabrics, and such – for new arrivals. They also are offered sewing lessons.

The day they took her, she started collecting sewing supplies, including a trash bag filled with fabrics. But she still didn’t have a sewing machine, so the woman who coordinates STITCH found a 1930s Singer machine – but they quickly discovered it didn’t work well with today’s stretchy fabrics, so she found a newer machine that has worked much better for Mrs. Ali.

“She has sewn and sewn and sewn in just one week’s time,” Henson said. “It’s a really exciting thing.”

The STITCH location serves a secondary role as a safe space for the vulnerable and the victimized. Henson said the site is limited to women because so many refugees have been mistreated. The women who go there all have stories, she said.

Fleshman said the family has begun networking with other Afghans, developing new friends and acquaintances. It has been a pleasure working with them and growing closer: “I think they charge my battery every time I come back from their house.”

Broadway (Bowling Green)

When the Conference reached out to churches, Meghan Johnston, Broadway’s Community Development Associate, and Jason Brown, also of Broadway’s staff, reached out to Albert Mbanfu, the Executive Director of the International Center of Kentucky, who shared that financial support was the greatest need. The Conference grant is covering rent and utilities for these families until they can join the workforce, Johnston said.

The church also hosted a Lunch & Learn with the International Center on March 27 to invite others to learn about the agency’s Family Mentoring Program, which equips residents “to come alongside our new neighbors as they adjust to live in Bowling Green,” Johnston said. Eighteen people were there, and 11 expressed an interest in signing up to help, she said.

Program Director Sister Anne Marie Joshua shared that in addition to financial needs, mentors are needed. Of the 350 refugees who have arrived in Bowling Green, only 30 have a mentor to guide them in learning about their new home.

“We are looking forward to seeing support for this program grow in the coming months,” Johnston said. (If you are interested in volunteering to help, go to:; to donate, go to:

Christ Church (Louisville)

Christ Church United Methodist regularly partners with KRM to co-sponsor refugees who have been resettled in Louisville, said Wenda Fischer, the church’s outreach liaison. In October 2021, the church’s Refugee Support Team began helping Afsar, who had worked with U.S. forces and had been evacuated from Kabul the previous August.

The team welcomed him at the airport and accompanied him to his new home. “Since then, we provided groceries and money for rent for two months, transported him to an Arabic market and Kroger for shopping, visited, assisted with numerous questions and provided requested items – vacuum cleaner, pressure cooker, television, coffee table,” Fischer said.

More recently, the church partnered with St. John UMC to provide additional support, including a bicycle and to serve as a resource when he has questions. In January, his brother, Habibullah, was resettled in Louisville and moved into Afsar’s apartment. “We now have the opportunity to assist both men,” Fischer said.

“Going forward, our efforts will focus on providing support for these men until they are granted refugee status or asylum,” she said.  “After that, we will focus on assisting with relocation of their families (wives, children) who are still in Kabul.”

The men currently have “humanitarian parole” status, which is provisional and will expire after two years, Fischer said. Long range, Christ Church will provide transport to Chicago for in-person application for asylum status and funds to retain an attorney for the final application, she said.

Fuente de Avivamiento (Lexington)

As a church made up largely of Hispanic immigrants, Fuento de Avivamiento has a heart for helping all immigrants, said Rev. Silvia Villegas, the Associate Pastor. Many of their congregants know what it’s like to try to access transportation and other help for new arrivals.

“Sometimes there are many ways to help around us, but we don’t know which doors to knock,” Villegas said.

Villegas said that the church was in the early stages of preparing to lend assistance. She anticipated members helping Afghan refugees with shopping, grocery gift cards, transportation tickets for buses, and hosting classes for English.

Villegas, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. when she was 13, said most of Fuente’s members are from Mexico. The church also has a fair number from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as a few from Cuba, and also a few Americans who speak Spanish.

“We see a lot of new faces,” she said.

Centenary (Lexington)

Centenary has partnered with KRM through the years in the church’s active resettlement ministry. Since the mid-2000s, the church has resettled seven refugee families from Congo, Bhutan, and Syria, according to information from Centenary’s initial grant request. (Julie Broderson, who oversees mission work for the church, was on a mission trip in late March and unavailable for comment.) 

“The resettlement process involves a commitment to furnish an apartment before the refugees arrive, provide financial support for a variety of expenses for the first three months after they arrive, as well as extend emotional, social and (tangible) support like transportation, school enrollment, and life skills training as they adapt to their new home,” according to Centenary’s application request. 

Expenses vary with each resettlement, depending on the rent for the apartment, setup costs, and support costs. All the money is used to support the family.

Settle Memorial (Owensboro)

Rev. Keith Switzer, the Senior Pastor, said Settle partnered with Owensboro First Christian Church to provide transportation to First Christian, where refugees prepared and cooked food for their community while they were housed in a local hotel. Settle also provided winter coats, he said.

Rev.  Chris Toney, Settle’s Associate Pastor, said a team of volunteers shuttled the church’s buses. Settle also hosted a men’s breakfast on March 5 in the church’s Outreach and Renewal Building for members of the Afghan and Congolese communities attended by 125 people.
Toney said that guest speakers included individuals who spoke about culture, life in America, and testimonies from those who once were refugees and now permanently reside in Owensboro.

After a recent mix-up in government assistance, Settle also purchased gift cards from local grocery stores and gave them to members of the Afghan community, Toney said.

NEXT UP: Ukrainian refugees?

Another refugee crisis might be coming with the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hatton said the Cabinet plans to reach out to our current host churches and will also explore other ministries to help churches discern what they might do to help.

“Families are trying to save their children and are willing to abandon everything they know to do so,” Hatton said. “As Christians, we remember Jesus’s teaching that a neighbor shows mercy. Now is the time to go and do the same.”

Sievering, of KRM in Northern Kentucky, said it likely would be several months before any Ukrainian refugees begin arriving in the U.S. “I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see something happening, the way things are going in Europe,” she said.

Smart, the Cabinet Dean, said that “it’s not just about this recent wave of refugees” from Afghanistan.

“My hope is this begins a partnership that will last beyond the next year, that as churches hear about the need, they’ll know they’re not alone,” he said. “Their Annual Conference can help share the ministry with them and help them do what they can’t do alone, and also hopefully other churches will become sponsors, or even partner together.

“Maybe they think it’s too much to take on, but if they have a group of churches standing with them, it’s doable.”
$5,000 from Merrick Fund to assist Polish church’s work with Ukrainian refugees

The Kentucky Annual Conference’s Outreach Team has sent $5,000 from the Merrick Fund to Tarnow United Methodist Church in Tarnow, Poland, to assist that church’s work in assisting Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invasion by Russia.
The funds were recently disbursed to help the church, which is hosting Ukrainian families in the church building, sending supplies to those in need, and is beginning to include Ukrainian interpretation in its worship services to meet the refugees’ needs. A four-minute video from Pastor Adrian Myslinski details the work they are doing.
“As a congregation, we support local aid points, which we provide them with clothing, food, water, and other things that we are informed about by refugees and volunteers from Ukraine,” Myslinski said in an email. “Direct contact with refugees is very important to us; we want to see who we are helping and let them know where this help comes from.
“It is also very important for us to support these people spiritually. We want to show them that God is love. We are loved by Him unconditionally, therefore we want to love unconditionally.”
The Conference’s Outreach Team, made up of Revs. Gary Baker, John Kalz and John Choi, is one of the cornerstones of the ANOW (Advocacy, Nurture, Outreach, Worship) Team, part of Connectional Ministries. The Merrick Fund was established in 1982 and allows the Conference to carry out specially targeted missional work and ministry beyond budgeted funds.
In addition to the $5,000 Merrick Fund donation, Madisonville First UMC, in southwestern Kentucky – where Kalz is co-Lead Pastor – is collecting its Easter Mission Offering to benefit the church and efforts in Tarnow.  Nearby Hanson UMC is joining in Madisonville’s effort, and Science Hill UMC, in southeastern Kentucky, also has provided a contribution.