I have had the opportunity to know Rich Casebolt, founder of RefugeKC, for several years. Rich was one of the faces behind the counter of Eleos Coffee during their first five years. It was as one of his frequent customer contacts that I was able to learn of his intention with living in the Historic Kansas City (Missouri) Northeast Neighborhood (KCNE). The Historic KCNE is known for many aging buildings, a few of them noted for important residents of Kansas City’s past. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the KCNE was home primarily to immigrants of Italian dissent. Today, the neighborhood is amongst the most diverse in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area, in terms of ethnicity, household income (with a high concentration of poverty), language, and in national origin. This makes the KCNE a likely home and place for ministry for a family with missionary experience.
Rich moved to Kansas City form Oklahoma in 1999 to attend the Midwestern Baptist Seminary. While he worked on his Master of Divinity (MDiv), he met his wife who also was working on her MDiv. In 2005, they answered the call to serve in Thailand as missionaries, and spent six years living in different regions of the country. In 2011, the Casebolts brought their Thai language and missionary skills back to Kansas City where they settled in the Historic KCNE. It was shortly after their return that I came to know Rich at Eleos Ministries. Through this creative ministry of Eleos Coffee, Rich learned a lot about the people living on or near the main corridor of the KCNE, Independence Avenue. Soon, Rich would discover how a need within the community could be mitigated with his skills and experience as a missionary.
One day, a man of Karen ethnic identity came into the shop seeking assistance with little to no English. In that moment, he discovered that they had both acquired Thai as a secondary language, which enabled Rich to guide him to resources that he needed. The Karen are an ethnic minority group originating in Myanmar, who have sought political recognition over the last century with little success. With decades of turbulence and fighting amongst Myanmar residents, many Karen have fled to refugee camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Some have spent their entire lives in refugee camps with few opportunities to seek better lives for themselves or their families.
A very small percentage of people who are able to apply for refugee resettlement through the United Nations are ever resettled. An even smaller percentage of refuge-seeking people are resettled in the United States. Once the U.S. Department of State admits refugees, local Non-Government Organizations which receive some federal funding, oversee the remaining journey for their path to new life in the United States. Yet, this final step in a refugee’s resettlement is often overseen by people who are swamped with hundreds of new people per year. My own research on refugee arrivals in Kansas City showed that over 1,100 individuals arrived in the metropolitan area in 2016 alone. Furthermore, over 140 Syrian refugees were resettled in the Kansas City Metropolitan area between January and November of 2016, representing 1 of 18 nationalities now represented among new Americans arriving in Kansas City every year. The number and diversity of the refugees arriving in the area makes personalized care very difficult for the two organizations in the Kansas City metropolitan area currently receiving funding from the federal government as official resettlement agencies–Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) and Della Lamb.
It is here where Rich’s vision came into view one year ago. As he realized that his missionary experience matched well with the need for long-term case management serving the local refugee community, it became apparent that he would need to call on the Body of Christ to respond. In late 2015, Rich stepped out of his barista role at Eleos Coffee to file with the State of Missouri his registration for RefugeKC, Inc. As this entry is written, RefugeKC, Inc is celebrating its first birthday.
RefugeKC was founded in 2015 to fill the gap in Kansas City area services offered to the refugee population. The web site states that the focus of RefugeKC is to “welcome the stranger” as a way to glorify God. Also stated is the vision for welcome the “new-American neighbor” through gospel-focused services using mobilization of local churches. Working with the Wall Project is one small step through which RefugeKC has begun to approach this goal.
My wife, Denise and I, attended a recent mobilization event hosted by a Congolese congregation and sponsored by the Wall Project. The Wall Project was started by Natalie Moultrie with the mission to engage in an “intentional cultural exchange and connection of believers from people of different ethnic backgrounds and denominations…” (quoted from a pamphlet received at the event). This was a celebration of Christmas, with a potluck and gift exchange. The music and message in the preliminary service was in Congolese. Denise and I observed the tactile nature of the culture represented on the stage. We swayed with them and clapped. The Holy Spirit arrived, regardless of whether or not the words were translated. We were among people who had made a choice to step outside of our comfort zones in order to be in solidarity with people who have been forced outside of their countries. We also met South Sudanese and Haitian brothers and sisters, amongst other local of American nationality.
Engaging people to collaborate for a common vision is a large part of RefugeKC at the present time. I discovered, in a pleasant surprise, that collaboration is embedded in the legalities of running a 501 C 3 organization. For example, RefugeKC holds monthly board meetings on a monthly basis in compliance with the IRS requirement for registered 501 C 3 organizations. Underneath the this technicality is a large part of why I may one day wish to start my own organization. If the CEO choses wisely, each member of the board potentially brings with him or her valuable perspectives and expertise. This makes members of the board critical assets as the CEO continues to cast her vision. While the the CEO is strong in the vision, he needs to rely on people whose strengths compliment his. For example, the CEO may not be an expert in administrative matters, and much less with the legalities of processing donations to the organization. Yet, the board may be able to introduce a qualified person with administrative and legal skills and experience to the CEO as a potential team member. As my high school youth pastor once told me years ago, this is why it is never good to burn your bridges.
Speaking of contribution of skills, I spent a large portion of my internship hours researching the refugee community in Kansas City. With the research, I created a brochure (it can be seen below in rough draft form). I am also researching the Syrian culture with interest in how RefugeKC may reach new Kansas City residents of Syrian origin with gospel-focused services.
Future vision casting for RefugeKC includes an after school program with hopeful launch in 2017 and a resource village several years down the road. Rich and I have discussed my involvement in assisting RefugeKC into 2017 with the first focus–the after school program. In the broad scope of things, I find myself gravitating into an urban missionary role in the KCNE. RefugeKC supports a vision that is very similar to what I am prayerfully seeking along with my wife.