How an Unlikely Church Is Reaching Refugees – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

When Guy-Fleury Yedidiah landed at Dulles Airport, he was supposed to tell the customs officials he was on vacation. But the 20-year-old was scared to death—in reality, he was fleeing the Burundian government. Over the past several years, they had killed his grandma and shot at him because of his father’s work as a journalist.

His family’s plan was for Yedidiah to escape into the United States on a tourist visa, then board a flight to his aunt and uncle in Canada. But he was nervous enough that U.S. officials picked up on his anxiety. They detained him.

After Guy-Fleury Yedidiah was released, Curt and Rachel Petersen gave him a belated 21st birthday celebration / Courtesy of Curt Petersen

Attorney Curt Petersen met Yedidiah a few days later. Yedidiah was in the basement of the Department of Homeland Security, wearing a jumpsuit and shaking with cold. Petersen, a Christian, handed over his suit coat, then began asking questions. Yedidiah was a Christian too, and by the end of the first translated conversation, Petersen felt like they were brothers. Over the next nine months, Petersen put in 500 pro bono hours to gain Yedidiah asylum.

Meanwhile, a deacon at Petersen’s church, Alexandria Presbyterian Church (APC), translated stacks of legal documents into French for Yedidiah to read. After he won asylum (during which the judge commended APC for “its faithfulness to the gospel message”), Yedidiah spent five years living with various church members. They fed him, took him on vacation, and enrolled him in community college. One member offered him a landscaping job; another gave him a car.

It sounds like a well-run immigration assistance program. But it wasn’t. “We didn’t have a refugee ministry,” then-APC minister of mercy Chris Sicks said. Indeed, APC isn’t the first place you’d think to look for immigration help. Sitting just outside of Washington, D.C., the 35-year-old church is primarily white, wealthy, well-educated, and well-connected.

Courtesy of the City of Alexandria

But it also sits in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. The public school system—which includes the high school that inspired Remember the Titans—serves students from 145 countries; they speak 132 different languages at home. More than half of Alexandrians were born outside the country.

If you live elsewhere in the U.S., this might not sound like your city—but odds are you’re heading in that direction.

“Take a good look at the scope and breadth of the ethnic and racial diversity in Northern Virginia,” USA Today wrote back in 2014. “Your community—and your schools—will look a lot like this within the next three decades.”

Census data back that up. In 2020, for the first time in American history, the number of white people in America had declined. “The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted,” the Brookings Institute observed. In 25 years whites will probably make up less than half of the population. In fact, the pie chart of ethnic diversity predicted for 2045 looks remarkably similar to Alexandria’s today.

APC is still primarily white. But over the past 14 years, its members have helped more than 60 immigrants and refugees. About two dozen have become members. Four have become deacons; last month, one was installed as an elder. For a church that wants to be “strengthened by the diversity of cultures and ethnicities,” the friendship and testimony of their refugee members has added spiritual energy and joy.

And then, this summer, APC began to serve their neighborhood in a new way. They planted a church called One Voice Fellowship (named from Romans 15:5–6). It doesn’t have an ethnic majority. Led by Sicks, its leadership team speaks English, Spanish, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Uyghur, French, Swahili, and Korean. The 20 core-group members can share the gospel in 17 different languages.

“God is so creative,” Sicks said. “I’m grateful he wants to do something like this, and lets us go along for the ride.”

Wanting to Believe

When Sicks told his boss, APC senior pastor Tom Holliday, that he wanted to plant an unusual church, Holliday wasn’t surprised. “It sounded consistent with who Chris is,” he said.

Sicks grew up Catholic in Chicago, and “didn’t learn about the gospel.” He was small and unpopular until he joined the National Guard to help pay for college. After a summer of basic training and a semester of fraternity living, he’d discovered enough physical and social confidence to attract girls.

Pastor Chris Sicks / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

“I was self-aware enough to know that getting drunk and sleeping around wasn’t consistent with following Jesus, so I decided I was an atheist,” he said. “What I really believed in was beer and girls.” That remained his religion after college—during an Army tour overseas, while managing a restaurant in Washington D.C., and as he began a stint as a newspaper reporter.

And then he picked up a novel by Mormon author Orson Scott Card. In it, characters are guided by a massive, benevolent artificial intelligence. It made Sicks wish he believed in God.

“I’m lying there in bed, the moon shining on my face, thinking about the characters who are led by pride and lust,” he said. “I realized those are the same two things that have driven my decisions. And I realized I needed a different God.”

Not sure exactly what to do, Sicks hopped out of bed and headed to where he’d seen a bicyclist praying once on a trail near his home. At 1 a.m., he knelt there and committed his life to Jesus. Later, during the day, he asked a Christian friend what to do next. Find a church and buy a Bible, the friend said.

Sicks tried a charismatic church first, “but that was too much for a Catholic boy,” he said. Someone suggested a PCA church would be a better fit. The first one in the phonebook was Alexandria Presbyterian.

“I heard teaching like I’d never heard before—it actually fed my soul,” he said. “I went to a small group two weeks after my conversion. . . . I learned how to read the Bible, how to pray, how to confess my sins to other guys.”

When a young man in prison called APC a while later, they sent Sicks to visit him. “I spent an hour with him—he’d spent years stealing and smoking crack with his mom,” said Sicks, who told him about Jesus. “I walked out of jail with a huge smile on my face. The next day I told my boss I was giving him two months’ notice because I wanted to do something like this with my life.”

Sicks got a job with a homeless shelter, working with inner-city youth. A few years later, he came on staff as a full-time deacon at APC. He spent the next 10 years going to seminary, becoming a dad of three, and caring for a wife dying of breast cancer.

And building a refugee ministry.

One at a Time

When Petersen asked Sicks if the church could help Yedidiah, Sicks wanted to meet him before pledging support.

“We drove two hours to the detention facility,” Sicks said. “I got the same impression Curt did—this skinny kid from Central Africa is my brother. Of course we’re going to help him. . . . He was an amazing first refugee story for a church to have.”

Guy-Fleury Yedidiah with Curt and Rachel Petersen a few days after he was released / Courtesy of Curt Petersen

Through Yedidiah’s connections and referrals from social service agencies, the church found another refugee who needed help, then another. The immigrants didn’t always stick around, and they weren’t always honest. For example, when Sicks noticed one man was consistently well-dressed even though APC was paying his rent, he asked to see his bank statements. “We discovered he was spending money frivolously,” Sicks said. “As soon as we addressed it with him, he left the church.”

The number of immigrants at APC was growing, but Sicks didn’t form a committee, create a binder, or standardize his procedures. “We did develop some spreadsheets and budgets that gave us some guidelines,” he said. “I was in the Army—I know that creating a standard operating procedure is good for operating a tank, but can be counterproductive with human beings.”

Instead, APC took refugees one at a time, connecting them with someone’s empty bedroom, someone’s workplace, someone’s family. “Each case tends to be really different,” Sicks said. “One couple has been here eight years, and they still struggle with their finances and speaking English. Others need help for about 18 months and then they’re mostly fine.”

In 2018, Sicks started an intensive English-language ministry. “Seventy percent of the students are Muslim,” he said. “They come four days a week, and there’s a Bible lesson every day. Soon they’re asking for Bibles in their own language. And I realized that if I bring them to almost any church in Alexandria, they won’t understand a thing.”

So APC began offering headsets with simultaneous translation. But while the new arrivals could now understand the sermon in their own language, most of the church’s life and fellowship was still conducted in English, which meant the refugees kept struggling to fully engage.

So Sicks started dreaming about a different kind of diverse church.

No Majority

In 1998, sociology professor Michael O. Emerson defined a multiethnic congregation: one where the majority race doesn’t exceed 80 percent. “Research on a variety of organizations has shown that it takes 20 percent or more of another group to have their voices heard and effect cultural change on an organization,” he wrote. “Short of that percentage, people are largely tokens.”

American churches took that finding to heart, creating materials, conferences, and networks. The 7 percent of multiracial evangelical congregations in 1998 grew to 15 percent in 2012, then to 23 percent in 2019.

But Sicks didn’t want a church that was 80 percent one race. In fact, he didn’t want any race to have a majority.

Core team meeting / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

“Some have said that whoever the first 20 people are in your church plant, that’s who the next 200 are,” he said. “We really took that to heart. We didn’t start meeting as a church until the diversity of the core group represented what we wanted to see down the road.”

So who is in the One Voice core group? Couples from Ethiopia, Pakistan, Egypt, and China; missionaries who worked in Central Asia; and APC deacons from Togo, El Salvador, and the Philippines.

Two early members were Kashif and Sana Shan, who had flown to the United States in 2019 on an employment visa. The American official working on their visa documentation knew Sicks, so APC deacons were there to pick them up at the airport.

“We started going to Alexandria Presbyterian, and everybody was nice, but we couldn’t find anyone who was from Pakistan,” Kashif said. “We only really talked to those two deacons who picked us up and their families. So it was good—it was a blessing—but it wasn’t comfortable.”

Kashif and Sana Shan with their daughter Joy / Courtesy of One Voice Fellowship

They’d been active in their church in Pakistan, but didn’t feel confident enough in their language or spirituality to serve at APC. “When you are working for God and you stop, it feels as if something is incomplete in your life,” Kashif said.

Another core-group member was Yaovi Kodjo, who loved APC. Like Chris, he felt comfortable with the culture. He served as a deacon for eight years, and was looking forward to raising his children in APC’s youth ministries. “I was very, very happy at APC,” he said. “When Chris came up with the idea of starting a new church, we had to think about it.”

In the end, he and his wife, Patricia, were attracted by the idea of worshiping in many languages alongside people from a variety of cultures. “The need is here,” he said. Helping “those immigrants to not be intimidated by language and also to be active in their language group would bring glory to God.”

It would, and Sicks was ready to get going. He began weekly core-group meetings, full of hope and enthusiasm, in January 2020.

Slow Down

In April 2020, the One Voice core group moved its meetings online.

“I’m actually grateful for COVID,” Sicks said. “I try to do things too fast. I’m too confident in my own abilities and ideas. God was kind enough not to let me plant a church until I was 52, so that I’d be more humble and reliant on him. And then COVID slowed us down.”

The team met weekly on Zoom to talk about culture, theology, and doctrine. They worked on getting to know each other. They prayed for each other. Finally, in October 2020, they began meeting in person to share prayer and meals, and to experiment with translation and worshiping together.

Worship at One Voice Fellowship / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

“Anything we do must be theologically wise,” Sicks said. In other words, God sets the terms for how we approach him. To use historic theological categories, the “elements” of a worship service (e.g., reading the Word, singing the Word, preaching the Word, praying the Word, and—in the sacraments—seeing the Word) are fixed. But there is freedom with “forms” and “circumstances”: so, when the One Voice prays, everyone speaks his own prayer in his own language. Sometimes they dance their offerings up to the front.

By the end of 2020, the core group still hadn’t held a public worship service. But it had expanded to include a woman from Puerto Rico, a man from Iran, and a pastoral intern from the Democratic Republic of Congo by way of Westminster Theological Seminary.

“We had to be united as a family, so that when others come in there’s already an established DNA,” Sicks said.

That’s important in any church plant, but even more so when there isn’t a common culture. When everybody’s speaking English as a second language. When nobody’s making a lot of money. And when almost everybody is dealing with some level of trauma from leaving home.

Don’t Play

“It’s hard to be an immigrant all week long, with people who don’t understand your culture, language, or accent,” Sicks said. “It’s good to be with your own people, studying the Bible and praying in your heart language.”

The small groups at One Voice are split up by language—Arabic, French, Spanish, Urdu/Punjabi, Uyghur/Mandarin, Amharic, and Persian. In worship, the sermons are in English but are translated into 11 languages on tablets handed out at the door. Scripture readings and songs are in a variety of languages. The first time they sang the doxology together—in a dozen languages at the same time—Sicks’s wife Naomi wept at the beauty.

One Voice children / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

It’s hard to develop worship practices that are consistent and grounding, while at the same time include different ways of doing things. Sicks tries to be flexible. He started by having people pray in their native languages, since it’s much easier to do—especially in front of others. But others found it hard to say “Amen” at the end, since they had no idea what was said. (Now they offer an English summary before closing.)

It’s also easy for him to make assumptions. When another church asked if they’d want to join in a Halloween trunk-or-treat, he said sure—prematurely.

“In Togo, evil spirits are real,” Kodjo told him. “And people know that. So you don’t play with them.”

Sicks pulled out of the trunk-or-treat.

“I keep making mistakes,” he said. “We had an Afghan woman here on Sunday, and she had a big smile and nodded while I was preaching, so I felt encouraged. Afterward I said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ and put my hand on her shoulder. Then I pulled my hand back—I can’t touch Afghan women!

Women at a One Voice picnic / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

“But I’ll be talking with a Congolese man who reaches out to hold my hand while we’re talking, because when you are close friends with somebody, they hold hands or put their hands on each other’s knees.”

His members can feel awkward, too. Kashif and Sana noticed that asking detailed questions about someone’s health—which to them indicated caring interest—sometimes felt intrusive to others. “When you talk with other people, you don’t always know what is right and wrong to talk about,” Kashif said. “We have to be humble and patient, and to have an open heart.”

For those reasons, Sicks is taking a lesson from COVID and aiming to grow the church slowly. “Cross-cultural relationships take time. Trust takes time,” he said. “We have a precious, fragile community here.”

In more ways than one. “I’m doing marriage counseling with four couples right now,” Sicks said. “They’re new to the U.S., and working different schedules, and money is tight. They have no family except the church, so they’re experiencing a lot of marital strain.”

Another challenge is finances. While One Voice is currently supported by other churches and individuals—including APC—Sicks knows that becoming financially sustainable is “an uphill battle.”

And yet, “my wife and I look at each other on Sunday night, and she says, ‘Is this really what we get to do?’”

God’s Doing It

One Voice has grown to around 75 people, including children. They meet in the building of a Chinese church, in a community where 70 to 90 percent of the elementary-school students don’t speak English at home. Nearly every Sunday, visitors join them.

“I have never seen anything like One Voice Fellowship,” said Clement Tendo, who serves as the pastoral intern. “The diversity itself exemplifies the unity in Christ.” And yet the questions One Voice is forced to ask—How can we help you enter into worship? How can we love you well?—can be asked in any church, he said.

Clément Tendo is a pastoral intern at One Voice / Courtesy of Chris Sicks

Church members can see God’s provision in the building, in the worship leader, in conversions. They can also see his work through APC, which sends elders over to teach and volunteers to run the IT and the children’s programs so the adults can worship together.

It hasn’t been a small sacrifice for APC. When Sicks first approached church leaders about planting One Voice, some hesitated. They’d just begun constructing their own church building, which was both expensive and time-consuming. It seemed like the exact wrong time to also take on the cost and energy of sending out a church plant.

“It was daunting,” Holliday said. “We prayed about it, and we felt the Lord was saying yes.”

Taking on both projects hasn’t depleted APC. They’re aiming to be in their space in April 2022, just as their lease expires. In October, 28 new members joined, including two Congolese women who made professions of faith.

“The gospel has done some incredible work in our international friends’ lives, and we have to ask what that same gospel is doing in our lives,” Holliday said. “It’s the work of the Spirit.”

Kodjo, who served in Holliday’s church for almost a decade, sounds just like him.

“It is God doing it,” he said. “We are just the workers in the field, making sure we do our part for his kingdom.”

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