Helping Negotiate Our Strange Land

Date posted: Thursday 14 April 2022

I am a student in Luther Seminary’s masters of Divinity program, currently serving my pastoral internship at St. Mark’s Lutheran in North St. Paul. One piece of internship is a student project of some kind, and I hit on an idea for mine just as I began my term in the fall of 2021. At that time, Afghan citizens who had worked with the government that was being toppled by the Taliban were being evacuated to the U.S. and other countries. Many landed close to home at Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin. Sponsoring a refugee family through Lutheran Social Service's (LSS) Circle of Welcome program seemed like the perfect opportunity for myself and for St. Mark's.


As I began to ask around the congregation for a sense of how they would respond to this idea, I was pleased to be met with an encouraging wave of enthusiasm. St. Mark’s member Son Luong, himself a Vietnamese immigrant and beneficiary of refugee resettlement, told his wife, Danette, that St. Mark’s “needed” to help out our new Afghan arrivals. Son and Danette made a generous contribution that kicked off the fundraising effort to raise what was expected to be around $8,000 to cover rent and some other expenses for the first six months for our future family.


In October we assembled a “mentor team” that would be background checked and cleared to work directly with the family, helping them navigate the complexities of life in America. Along with other members of St. Mark’s, we began to think about and collect the items that would be needed to set up a household for our family, who would be arriving with little more than a change of clothes.


On the Friday before Christmas, our team was asked by LSS if we thought we could have a household set up within 48 hours. Mentally, if not materially prepared for this moment, we said, “Yes!” and quickly gathered what we thought we would need to make a comfortable space for a family of seven we had yet to meet. A team of about 15 of us worked quickly and cohesively to prepare a household in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.


Meeting the Family

In early January, three members of our mentor team had our first meeting with the family, along with a translator and Elizabeth Kulus, volunteer coordinator from LSS. What we quickly learned is that our idea of what a family needs is a little different than the common household in Kabul. We discovered we needn’t have bothered carrying a dining room set and recliners up the narrow stairwell. Our family prefers to sleep and sit on the floor, even when eating. (They quickly realized that we prefer to sit on chairs and make sure they are out when we come to visit!)


The father of our family worked as a driver and mechanic in support of the U.S. government and a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Afghanistan. Due to the instability in his home country, he is presently attending school for the first time in his life as he nears 50 years old. Despite his lack of advantages, he can speak four languages and is rapidly learning English. The mother worked as a teacher, and along with an older son, has pretty fair English skills. Nonetheless, communication can be an interesting game of charades and misunderstandings, and there is often laughter all around as we try to make ourselves understood.


Our most difficult struggle has come in trying to find employers who are willing to hire workers with limited English skills. Coupled with the high cost of rent (nearly $2,000 + utilities) that makes it unlikely that our family will be self-supporting within the six-month target time that LSS has suggested. At present, the father is working full-time at an entry-level job, earning enough per month to cover rent, but that is all. Our team is resolved to assist the family beyond the six-month window until their lease is fulfilled and they can find a less expensive apartment.


Our family is extremely hospitable and quite insistent that we stay for meals when we visit. There is not a lot of arm-twisting needed, as the food is delicious. It has been a real joy to get to know them and to help out in our small ways as best we can.


Ongoing areas in need of prayer and action for our family include finding better employment for the father; continued success in adaptation to our culture for the four youngest family members who are all enrolled in local schools; and encouragement for the oldest son, who was on the cusp of finishing college in Afghanistan but now is forced to re-start his education in a new language.


If you have ever considered getting involved in helping a family from a strange land negotiate our strange land, I highly recommend that you give it a try. It is frustrating and confusing, but also immensely rewarding. My ancestors had the advantage of coming here willingly, but they would not have come if things were going well back home. Now, 140 years later, America remains that same destination for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” There is much work to be done.


Eric Gustafson

Pastoral Intern

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, North St. Paul