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Presbyterian congregation creates a home for Syrian refugees

Family finds sanctuary with a Louisville church and the resettlement agency it helped found.

OCTOBER 2, 2015

Newly arrived Syrian refugees, Shadi and Hanadi Antakli with daughter Tuqa and son Hasan, at their Louisville home.

Newly arrived Syrian refugees, Shadi and Hanadi Antakli with daughter Tuqa and son Hasan, at their Louisville home.

Presbyterian News Service – LOUISVILLE

At a time when many countries are closing their borders to refugees fleeing war in Syria, one Presbyterian congregation in Kentucky has opened its doors, offering a home—and a chance at a future—to a Syrian family.


On Aug. 20, members of Highland Presbyterian Church gathered at the Louisville airport to greet the newest refugees to arrive in the area, Shadi and Hanadi Antakli and their five-year-old daughter Tuqa and 10-year-old son Hasan. After piling into cars, the volunteers drove the Antaklis to their new house.


When they arrived, the doors of their new home were open, and the lights were on. Inside, more volunteers waited to greet the Antaklis. The pantries were stocked. Food from their homeland was cooking on the stove. And warm beds were waiting.


“It’s a slightly surreal experience to think that you’re offering this place for a family to live that is entirely unknown to them,” says Matt Nickel, Highland’s associate pastor for congregational life and mission. “They don’t know what it looks like, how it feels. It’s not home yet. But soon it will be.”


At the time, it had been more than two years since the Antaklis fled their home in Aleppo, Syria, in 2013. When Aleppo’s schools closed and medical services became hard to find, the Antaklis decided it was time to leave. “At the moment we felt our children [were] unsafe . . . [we] had to leave the country,” Shadi told a reporter from WAVE 3 News.


For the next few years, the Antaklis shared a small, crowded apartment in Istanbul, Turkey, with three other families. Cost of living was high, and survival was day to day. Finally, after a long process with the United Nations and Church World Service, the Antaklis boarded a plane to the United States to connect with Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM).


KRM, which houses its Louisville office at Highland Presbyterian, helps resettle refugees who have been legally admitted to the United States as victims of warfare or persecution. Though now a fully independent non-profit organization, KRM is supported with volunteers and funding from Highland Presbyterian, as well as from many other faith communities and organizations in the area. KRM traces its founding back to Highland when, in 1990, congregation member Donna Craig felt a call—after traveling to Nicaragua and witnessing the partly U.S.-sponsored violence there—to help people escaping dangerous places.


Now, 25 years later, KRM is resettling more than 1,000 people each year, says Cynthia Campbell, a board member of KRM and the pastor of Highland Presbyterian. “The main work is done by KRM staff as social workers, lawyers, and others help families register for school and government benefits, figure out vaccinations and medical care, enroll in ESL, and find employment,” she says. “What the church does is build a team of volunteers to help in the early days of a family’s resettlement, which includes putting together the initial household items such as furniture, cleaning supplies, food . . . really, everything needed so that a family walks into a house that is ready to go.”


Highland sponsors a family each year, and this year they wanted to support a Syrian family. They heard about the violence that began sweeping Syria in 2011, eventually leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 7.6 million displaced from their homes.


After spending two months preparing for the Antaklis’ arrival, the team of more than 15 volunteers is now helping the family adjust and access resources, such as the local community center and a class at Highland that teaches refugee women how to use an electric sewing machine. They take the parents to a halal grocery store and job interviews while others walk their kids to the school bus. The goal is eventual independence. “We don’t do anything they won’t be able to sustain on their own,” says Nickel.


Volunteers also drop by regularly throughout the week. “I don’t know much Arabic, but I do know shukran, ‘thank you,’ and the family is constantly saying that,” says Nickel. “They’re always bringing us water, juice or coffee when we visit. There’s a real kind of hospitality when you go over to their house.”


It’s those relationships that sustain the volunteers over many years, Nickel says. “Here’s a family who has lived through extraordinary circumstances and come to the United States with open hearts and so much to contribute to our community. . . . I guess they change us in a way too.”


“Hospitality is at the heart of the Gospel,” Campbell says, and apparently it’s at the heart of refugee ministry too. “We are all welcomed by the love of God, each one of us. And the obvious response to the gift we have been given is to share that same gift with others.”


That theology of hospitality rings true for Nickel. “There’s of course the call in Scripture to support and welcome the stranger. That’s the ‘head’ part of it, knowing it’s a good thing to do,” he says. “But for my personal faith, it’s knowing that I have received amazing gifts of safety, well-being, and support from my church communities my whole life, and sharing that with others is a way I can proffer my own gratitude for the life that God has given me.”

The bigger picture

Members of Highland Presbyterian know there are millions of other families in need of help. “To help just one seems like so little,” says Campbell. “But it’s something.” And that “something” is part of a much larger effort orchestrated not only by KRM but also by Presbyterian World Mission.


“The work we do is similar in that it is meeting the needs of God’s precious children,” says Greg Allen-Pickett, World Mission’s general manager. World Mission, he adds, though, has a different focus than KRM. “Our desire is to change the conditions so that people don’t have to become refugees, so that families never have to separate or leave their home.”


That’s why World Mission is partnering with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon to create a safe and thriving Syria. With the help of the newly formed Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network, U.S. Presbyterians are teaming up with Christian partners in the area to rebuild houses and schools, organize major relief appeals, and advocate for change through the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.


All of these efforts, from creating a home for the Antaklis to putting pressure on Congress, are part of one “faithful continuum,” says Allen-Pickett. “Our call as Christians is to work along that spectrum, whether it means filling a fridge with groceries or empowering partners to change conditions or advocating for policy changes.”


Every action, no matter its scope, matters, says Nickel, as long we as Christians remember the One who is the true author of this generosity and don’t give up when the media coverage dies down. “My hope is that we will be inspired to live our faith by welcoming refugees and that this won’t end when the Syrian crisis ends,” he says. “KRM has been doing this a long time and will be doing this long after.”


Click here to read Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons’s letter urging prayer and recommitment to refugees.

Peacemaking Offering

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This Sunday is World Communion Sunday. On this day in our church calendar, our thoughts turn to the meaning of peace and how, through Christ, we can nurture it inside ourselves and out in the world. Yet, to understand the value of peace, we must also understand the cost of conflict, and the many forms it can take.
● Conflict can be individual: 1 in 4 U.S. students reports being bullied at school.
● Conflict can be collective: Up to 70% of women experience violence in their lifetimes.
● Conflict can be domestic: 1 in 3 women has been the victim of violence at the hands of an intimate partner. 1 in 4 children has been physically abused.
● Conflict can be international: Conflict and political violence are on the rise in 48 countries.
● Conflict can be historical: Structural racism creates long-term deficits of opportunity.
● Conflict can be contemporary: Human trafficking and forced labor affect 3 of every 1,000 people in the world today.


To help address these diverse challenges, the Peace & Global Witness Offering supports a range of ministries devoted to peacemaking and reconciliation. This includes bearing witness in communities of conflict around the world, hosting education programs to raise awareness, driving local peacemaking efforts, offering catalyst support to our mission co-workers, and much more.


Imagine what a gift it is to those who have been hurt, in both their spirit and their community, to find a lasting peace and resolve conflict in its many forms.


When you give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering your gift is the peace of Christ, for all of God’s children. With each gift, we can begin to create a world of peace—together.


Please give generously:
● During worship on Sunday, October 4
● Text PEACE to 20222 to give $10

Mission Co-Worker Update: “SCRABBLING”

The Church in the World Committee of Highland Presbyterian Church discerned last year to support Presbyterian Church (USA) Mission Co-Workers Justin and Renee Sundberg. The Sundbergs serve in Managua, Nicaragua with CEPAD (The Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua). CEPAD is also a mission partner who facilitates our Nicaragua Mission Team’s (also known as the NUTS) ongoing covenant with the community in Mirazul, Nicaragua. When the team travels to Nicaragua, Justin is one of the people from CEPAD who guides, teaches, and supports our teams on the ground in Nicaragua. Justin and Renée share occasional updates about their with work in Nicaragua as Mission Co-Workers. Here is their most recent update.


Romans 8:26    “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”


“Scrambling,” describes our recent story well.   Our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters scramble too, though with much more toil.  Thank you for making it possible for us to live and work with these wonderful, but toiling Nicaraguans, to serve as a bridge of relationship with you.  Even on our most ragged and run-down days, we are carried by your love and support and thank God for you.  Thank you so much for sharing so generously in our ministry.


But it’s, “Scrabbling,” not Scrambling, that is on my mind.   I played a game of Scrabble yesterday image001 with our eldest son, Jack.  And then today some friends shared their approach to Scrabble — memorizing as many two or three-letter words as possible, even if they cannot recall their definitions.    This Scrabble strategy is an apt metaphor for us.  We piece each day together with words and growing relationships we don´t always fully comprehend.   There are times, to be sure, when our contributions are more elegant or strategic, but we usually feel a sense of accomplishment when we can participate in life even in the simplest of ways.


In our recent quarterly letters, we have not shared much about us personally.  Many of you have asked to hear more about how our kids are doing and how Renée’s health is.   Here is a brief update followed by a story which we hope underscores our gratitude for you and demonstrates some of what we are doing together, by God´s grace.


Renée’s dad has Alzheimer’s and since we arrived in Nicaragua last June, it has progressed.  Recalling most words is a struggle.  He has gotten lost and can no longer do much around the house.  It has been difficult for Renée’s mom not to have us nearby.


image002Autumn, Jack, Cassie and Ethan.  They deserve more than a group mention.  Each is thriving and struggling, each finding new words to include in their multilingual, multicultural puzzle.  Sometimes they feel stymied, waiting to draw a “vowel” from the Scrabble game of life so that they can make another play.  But more often, their creativity keeps them constantly on the move and discovering interesting new words.


Renée recovered from the elusive illnesses that plagued her during our initial four months.  After an early winter respite, the fever, fatigue, joint and back pain returned in the last few weeks.  She quickly returned to medical appointments and testing which ruled out several severe conditions.  Whew!  Next stop:  A visit with an orthopedic, a rheumatologist and a naturopath.   In spite of everything, she began regular Spanish language classes in January and is a fearless learner.  All along she had been jumping in at every chance to use her growing Spanish.  Additionally, she’s found joy in having new friends ask her to facilitate Bible studies and prayer groups.


In the lead-up to Christmas, it became clear that I, Justin, could benefit from counseling.  Trying to ensure that everything in our family and at work always goes according to plan was taking a toll on me.   In fact, my attempts to control family outcomes, not surprisingly, were having the opposite effect!  Last week I had my fifth visit with a counselor.  With her help and with the conviction that God wants to help me let go a little, things have improved.


In addition to a God who deeply loves us and the friendship and support we have from you, there are two other constants in our days:  Dust and Wind.  Dust coats every imaginable surface.  Wind rips away the screens on our home.  After three months of dust and wind, we await two more months until the rains return to refresh this land and give it its desperately needed bounty.


Much of Nicaragua suffers drought during this time of the year.  Recently I visited La Joya, a rural community two hours northeast of Managua.  La Joya community leaders showed us their four polluted and virtually dried-up water sources.  It is heartening to know that this community of 765 will soon have ample water thanks to CEPAD, our local host organization for whom we are working in partnership with Presbyterian World Mission.  Your relationship with us, the encouragement you give, your prayers, and the sharing of your financial resources all ensure that CEPAD continues strong.  So you can smile, too, along with this community, over their forthcoming vital new water supply!


Just as in La Joya, the tens of thousands living in the 41 communities in which CEPAD works tend to have deep faith lives and trust in Jesus, the great thirst quencher, who helps keep their dispositions generally hopeful, even with what we would call profound challenges to their health and wellbeing.  Our role as mission co-workers is to bring together Nicaraguans and North Americans in life’s maze of words and world experiences, each with unique gifts and deficits, creating space to better see Jesus’ work of personal and community renewal.

Our role as mission co-workers is to bring together Nicaraguans and North Americans in life’s maze of words and world experiences, each with unique gifts and deficits, creating space to better see Jesus’ work of personal and community renewal.

One student who participated on a recent visit from a North American team epitomizes our gratitude for the role we play as mission co-workers.  She is in her final year at a prestigious college.  At a reunion with her teammates after her CEPAD-facilitated trip to Nicaragua, she shared the shocking news that for the first time in her life, she went to a class and was totally uninterested in it.  A chaplain at the school quipped, “That’s nearly an indicator of the End Times!”   You see, this young adult, who loves school and learning, had discovered something new, something life-changing, that gave her an expanded vista.  What a poignant moment, just prior to entering the workforce, to have a changed heart and worldview!


Thank you for helping to substantially alter the lives not just of Nicaraguans, but also the lives of North Americans who visit.  We invite you to pray with us for Nicaragua, CEPAD and the North Americans in relationship to them.  If you like to write, but haven’t been able to do so since we left, would you consider sending us a note to let us know how you are?  And might you, if you have not already, join us by sharing of your financial resources in support of all of this?


May the Lord bless and keep you as you steward the tiles in your reach, knowing that you are in the hands of the One who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

With much love,

Justin and Renée


Please keep Justin and Renée and their family in prayer as they continue to serve in Nicaragua. To learn more about how you can get involved with their ministry or the partnership of the Nicaragua Mission Team with CEPAD, contact Matt Nickel at

Supporting our Mission Partners

PCUSA Mission Co-Worker Amanda Craft

One feature of the blog shares the work of Highland Presbyterian Church’s mission partners. In addition to the many ways church members put faith into action through mission, Highland supports a wide range of people and organizations doing working the world.  Church in the World, the mission team responsible for partnerships and mission engagement, discerns the congregations call to use available mission funds. One ministry the church supports is Mission Co-Worker Amanda Craft.


Amanda serves as the Regional Liaison for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and as the Facilitator for Mexico & Guatemala. Amanda’s husband serves as the Presbyterian Border Region Outreach Ministry. As the regional liaison, she serves as a facilitator of Presbyterian Church (USA) support the denomination’s relationships with mission partners in Guatemala and Mexico and their activity in the region. As regional liaison supports PC(USA) mission co-workers in through communication, encouragement and care. Amanda grew up at Highland Presbyterian Church and the congregation is proud to support her ministry in Central America.

Amanda Craft has been called to this position, and her husband, Omar Chan, serves the Border Outreach ministry in Mexico. He facilitates faithful and effective mission at each of the six border ministry sites to enhance the opportunity for PC(USA) members and congregations to participate in mutual mission along the Mexico/US border. This work addresses three critical global issues: root causes of poverty (especially as they impact women and children), sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and engaging in reconciliation amidst cultures of violence.

Read Amanda Craft’s blog to keep up with her work.

Download and Read a prayer card for their their work.

Watch a video of Amanda talking about her work.

Learn more about PCUSA’s work in Guatemala.

Learn more about PCUSA’s work in Mexico.


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