Georgia Church Helps Refugees, Supports Community

Erika Iverson/CWS | December 30, 2013

As one year ends and another begins, many are taking time to consider what was accomplished in the last 12 months and to plan for what lies ahead.

Members of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia, have been busy and there are no signs they’re letting up.

Amy Crownover of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta, a CWS affiliate, notes that Hank Woolard and his team at Oak Grove have been welcoming refugees to Atlanta for years. “They’ve developed a gold standard for co-sponsorship and are always seeking to improve and deepen their service, most recently by learning how to teach English, Crownover said.

Hank first approached the church about engaging in refugee ministry after noticing the growing numbers of refugees in Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb. “There was a need, and it was just something we were going to do.”

Oak Grove supports the Clarkston community in a number of ways. One involves focusing on individual refugee families, greeting them at the airport with hugs and smiles. Church members furnish apartments for new arrivals and visit them to make sure that they know they are welcomed and that someone cares.

Suk Sunuwar and his family, refugees from Burma, arrived in 2012 and were assisted by Oak Grove. “We were very surprised to get help and to see Hank at the airport. We were so happy. Yeah, it’s a good idea to have churches help,” he said.

Beyond offering English classes and working with families, Oak Grove also collects gifts for refugee children around the Christmas holiday and runs a food pantry open to all Clarkston residents in need.

Hank is the driving force behind Oak Grove’s refugee ministry, and he’s able to do all this by engaging the entire congregation. One particular group within the church has really embraced the call to welcome: the youth group.

“When Hank tells the need, the youth respond. They’re becoming even more passionate about missions because of this work,” said Robin Merrill, Oak Grove’s youth minister.

A few years ago, Hank noticed that a refugee family originally from Burma was in need of a car. The husband had a job at a poultry plant outside of Atlanta but didn’t have reliable transportation, so was in danger of losing his job. Hank found a used car for about $3,000 and told the youth group that he could use help raising the money to buy it.

The youth group got to work and raised the funds in less than ten days.

Robin explains that it isn’t just about providing cars or television sets or sofas or food. “We’re looking for something more. We want to build a community.”