Elinor Townsend Griffin, a 2016 magna cum laude graduate of Erskine College and the recipient of last year’s H.M. Young Ring, the highest award given to a senior, returned to her alma mater March 23 to speak about her job as Refugee Ministry Coordinator for Outreach North America—and “to challenge the idea that success has to look like a big paycheck, or a fancy job title, or everyone knowing your name, or an easy life.”
Griffin’s first introduction to refugees was during a 2015 Winter Term internship at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Baltimore, Maryland, after she had spent part of the summer in 2014 with a ministry called the Rafiki Foundation in Mojo, Ethiopia.
“The Lord used my time overseas to break my heart as the global refugee crisis rapidly worsened that summer,” she says. “For the first time, I grasped so vividly that the thousands of people who were fleeing for their lives were not just numbers or statistics; they were real people, and each one had a name and a face and a story.”
Griffin, who made an impassioned plea for the importance of Christian outreach to refugees, shared the Lesesne Auditorium stage with Kay Burklin, who serves as refugee liaison for Mission to the World (MTW). Burklin spoke about her own experience, which includes living and working in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp in the Philippines after graduating from Wheaton College. She has assisted with disaster relief and participated in short-term mission trips, and formerly served as director of MTW’s Mercy Ministry. Her husband, Heiko, is an ARP minister, and the couple planted churches in the former East Berlin for 10 years.
Burklin sees in the refugee crisis “a movement of God,” with “millions coming out of countries historically closed to the gospel.” She cited a refugee who met Christians in Berlin who “gave him a Bible in Farsi and discipled him.” Later, he testified to the “huge hole” in his heart that only Jesus could fill. “[He] feels…that God brought him to Germany so he could discover Jesus,” Burklin said.
The current refugee crisis is the largest since World War II, with more than 21 million men, women and children affected, and in addition to those who are clearly refugees, Griffin said, “Another 43 million are displaced in some way because of violence and persecution.”
Clarifying for her audience the difference between immigrants and refugees, Griffin said, “When it comes to refugees you can say that all refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees,” adding, “the key thing that sets refugees apart is that they are fleeing persecution.”
Can you imagine?
Noting the difficulties that attend the actual resettlement of refugees—including a “20-step process of interviews, medical screening, paperwork, more interviews, fingerprinting, retinal scans, and sometimes even DNA testing”—Griffin said the process takes, on average, 18 months to two years, but sometimes can take years or decades.
“That means that there are people our age who have never known life outside a refugee camp,” Griffin said to an audience mostly made up of college students. She then asked the students to put themselves in a young refugee’s place.
“Imagine with me for a moment that tomorrow you are airdropped into Uzbekistan. You do not know a single person in the country. You do not know the language. You do not know the culture, the historical context, the climate, the industry, or the political scene of the country where you will spend the rest of your life.
“All you know is the name of a city you can’t pronounce and can’t spell, and you are now vulnerable to mistreatment and misinformation unless you happen to find a friend or an advocate to help you.”
Griffin recalled the fear she felt as a college senior about this time last year, not knowing what she was going to do after graduation, and said that she would have to take the fear she experienced at that time “and amp it up by about 1,000” in order to come close to the terror and trauma of refugees who have had “family members, home, life’s work, belongings, and memories…ripped away.”
What do they need?
Griffin said she and Burklin were interested not only in telling about the refugee crisis but also “what the Lord is doing in the middle of all of it and our opportunities to meet refugees in their moments of need.”
In preparation for her job with refugees for Outreach North America here in the United States, Griffin spent some time in Greece, and a church planter there told her that refugees’ biggest need is community. “They want someone to come live with and among them,” he said.
“That need that they are trying to meet in Greece is also a need that we can meet here in the United States,” Griffin said. “They need people who are willing to just open up our daily lives to refugees and share our normal lives with them. They need people who will sit and listen and give refugees the dignity of sharing their story.”
Griffin stressed that special skills in languages or other areas are not necessary. “It takes being willing to step past the awkwardness of a different culture and be a friend and a support. And that can take shape in any way that you are gifted or interested.”
She has known people who have started community gardens, sports leagues for children, and sewing clubs, and she believes one’s own gifts and interests can be a means of building a bridge. “It’s not always easy. It’s not always pretty. But it’s love in action.”
On a personal note, Griffin talked about a refugee family from Myanmar (also called Burma) to whom she and her sister were introduced. One day, she drove the mother and baby twins to a medical appointment, and the next week, she stopped by their apartment with medicine, not planning to stay. The mother asked that she come in, saying, “You will not sit?” while pointing to the couch. As soon as Griffin sat down on the sofa, the mother handed her one of the babies, “because she knew how much I wanted to hold her.”
Reflecting on the incident, Griffin mused, “All it took was one morning and a doctor’s appointment for that friendship to begin.”
What will you do?
Griffin posed some stirring questions for students, especially seniors. “As you graduate, is there a category in your definition of success for caring for vulnerable people?” she asked.
“For speaking out against injustice? For being content…to forgo the big paycheck and fancy job and prestige for the sake of investing in the lives of those around you …whatever career you’re going into or whatever degree you will have?”
Griffin is certain that showing Christ’s mercy is “what we’re called to do, not just because it’s a right or moral thing to do, but because the truth and beauty of the gospel is that Jesus Christ moved toward you and me in our brokenness, our pain, our vulnerability, and our sin.”
Christians are “called to mirror and live out tangibly in our careers and in our daily lives the mercy and grace and welcome that has been extended to us through Christ,” she said.
Burklin announced a concrete way to assist refugees. “For many moms with small children, their only option is to carry their children in their arms, no matter the time or distance. The simple gift of a stroller can be life-changing for exhausted mothers and traveling families,” she said.
“Our goal is for Erskine to donate funds for five strollers, each approximately $120,” she said. “If every Erskine student gave just $1, we’d be there!”
Donations to the “Strollers for Refugees” project can be made online (designate your donation “strollers”) at https://mtw.org/missionaries/details/kirkland-joy-and-philip
Checks are also accepted and should be made out to Mission to the World (with “strollers” in the memo line) and mailed to Mission to the World, Attention #14022 Kirklands, P.O. Box 2589, Suwanee, GA 30024