The Refugees of Iowa

As political pundits and news junkies rev up for the famed Iowa caucuses two weeks from today, it’s important to remember that this lily-white state is not quite as lily white as it seems.

Nearly 10,000 refugees have resettled in Iowa since 2002 and nearly 6,000 of them have resetttled in Des Moines.

And a lot of those refugees have been helped by Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Des Moines. And that all came about because of a quest the church went on, a self-examination of what it was doing that was making a difference with its neighbors. And when the church, led by its pastor, John Kline, asked itself that question, the answer was simple.

It wasn’t.

So, Pastor John, as he is known, and his congregation–whose members run the political gamut and include Trump voters– decided to change that.

The result? A church that was then 98.5 percent white now holds services in four languages for congregants who pray in upward of a dozen languages. The church’s life-skills training for adults helps people who once lived in huts with mud floors to buy homes from the veterans now selling their solidly built, post–WWII bungalows just east of the church.

Girls in hijabs run through the church building’s hallways during the church’s Wednesday night after-school program, where volunteers teach ESL and tutor kids in reading and homework management. Pizza is part of the program for the 300 to 400 kids who gather there each week. “Kids are always hungry,” says Pastor John.

A congregation that was once routinely three months behind on its mortgage has now all but $150,000 of its $1.3-million mortgage paid off. But it’s not a “happy Hallmark ending,” says Kline, who was worried that too much will be read into that part of the story.

The publicity the church received attracted a donor who wrote a big check. That check enabled the church to change its financial structure, which freed up some money that had been held in trust. And that, in turn, enabled the congregation to pay down the mortgage. “I don’t want anyone to go down this path and say, ‘We’re going to get this major blessing,’” he says. “Because the major blessing you get is a mess.”

And it is a mess. Chaotic, even. Programs start without funding. Children get into fights. Food gets ground into the rug. An Iraqi volunteer drives a church van through Des Moines the way he drove in Bagdad and complaints come in. “When driving the church van, you have to drive like Jesus,” deadpans Kline. “It’s not about who is the first to get through the stop sign.” And sometimes a kid kicks a soccer ball through a venerable stained glass window. Kline considered the soccer-ball-through-the- stained-glass-window the litmus test for any congregation.

The century-old stained-glass window–duct-taped back together

Zion just taped the window back together with clear packing tape. Nobody complained. That showed the congregation’s ability to deal with disruption by applying mercy and grace, said Kline, who added, “Otherwise, it isn’t very Christ-like.”

For more on this amazing church and how it transformed itself and dealt with the differences within the congregation and the greater community, please read How The Refugee Crisis Unites America: The Untold Story of the Grassroots Movement Shattering Our Red and Blue Silos.

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