South Carolina Couple Spearhead Ministry to Welcome Afghan Refugees, See Movement of Welcome Grow in the State
By Alan Cross
Tim and Jody Cross, missionaries with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) worked with refugees for years in America and Europe. They moved to the college town of Clemson, South Carolina in 2020 from nearby Greenville to minister to international students and continue their work with refugees. While they hoped to continue their work, they didn’t quite expect to be at the forefront of receiving Afghan refugees to the Upstate of South Carolina.
As the U.S. Government scrambled to find locations all across the country to send the 76,000 Afghan refugees that arrived last fall and winter, Clemson was seen as an ideal place. The town had good public transportation and old student housing everywhere that was relatively cheap. Plus, there is great diversity with students from all over the world attending the university. Very quickly, 125 Afghan refugees were scheduled to come to the South Carolina Upstate, with sixty headed to Clemson. Tim and Jody were in the right place at the right time.
They held an interest meeting for all the churches in Clemson in the first week of January and saw sixty people show up in person with twenty more on Zoom from fifteen churches. Working with the Lutheran Services refugee resettlement program and their program called Circles of Welcome, they asked for a six month to one year commitment to welcome Afghan families and individuals. In their training with the church teams, they talk about the trauma refugees go through and their stages of grief, how to help without hurting, and cultural best practices.
Their motivation to help refugees resettle to places of safety is found in how they follow Jesus. “Jesus calls us to love and welcome the stranger,” the Crosses said. “We are people of faith and we are compelled by Jesus to love people no matter where they come from and to welcome them. We’re just trying to love these people so well.”
And, they are having some remarkable experiences. They asked the two Afghan refugees who helped move their daughter to Clarkston, Georgia what their biggest culture shock was in coming to America. One of the men said, “the fact that the people here are so kind and loving and welcoming. I’ve never experienced this before.” His wife added, “I can’t believe how kind people are here and how they help each other. I’m shocked at how people help strangers here so much. “
In a recent interview with an ABC News reporter, they were asked about what it was like to receive Afghan refugees in the South with the Red State – Blue State divide. They said that as people of faith they are supposed to minister to people. This is what they do and there isn’t any hesitation. The divide that is often seen in the news wasn’t present in the way people were actually receiving the refugees coming to them.
The Crosses reported that when one Afghan refugee heard he was going to Greenville, S.C. and was told by others that that wasn’t good because he would be rejected there, he was very afraid. But, when he came down the escalator at the airport and saw the crowd with signs welcoming him that the Crosses helped organize from the churches, he was amazed as he realized that they were welcoming … him. What he was told about the place was very different than what he experienced and that warm welcome made a significant difference in the early days of his arrival.
In addition to organizing and training teams of people from local churches to welcome Afghan refugees in Clemson, the Crosses have also seen people from the community offer their time, resources, and skills to welcome their new neighbors. And they have received much back from the Afghans as well! Here are just a few stories that the Crosses have shared:
- They recently saw staff from a local barber shop volunteer to give Afghan refugees free haircuts.
- A local church hosted a baby shower for an Afghan family.
- When they visit an Afghan family’s new home, they experience amazing hospitality. The Afghan family immediately brings out a tray full of nuts, dried fruits, candies, and they serve green tea. The Crosses have now started doing the same with their friends.
- People came together to donate tools and equipment to set up a woodworking shop for one of the Afghan refugees who is a master carpenter. He is now working to provide for his family by creating furniture, including large porch bed
- A local baptist association of churches collected boxes of toiletries and household goods. A person in one of their churches passed away and they requested that people bring laundry detergent and toiletries to the funeral to give to the Afghan refugee families in lieu of flowers.
Tim and Jody Cross aren’t the only ones working throughout South Carolina to actively welcome immigrants and refugees from around the world. In early March, the South Carolina Baptist state newspaper, The Baptist Courier, reported on the wide ranging work of baptists in the state to meet a growing need to welcome the nations coming to them:
Ethnic pastors, ministries and churches are a growing need across South Carolina, according to Ken Owens, leader of the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s Send Team. “Our state, like our country, is becoming increasingly more diverse,” Owens said.
“People are coming from around the world to South Carolina,” said Owens, whose team works with all ethnic groups other than Hispanics. “Over a quarter of a million people living in South Carolina are foreign born. Foreign students come here to study. Foreign businesses also come to South Carolina, and their leadership often comes with them.
“School districts across the state are even recruiting teachers from other countries to teach in our public schools to fill critical areas of teacher shortage,” he said. “We have refugees who are making their way here, like those coming from Afghanistan.”
In the article, Robbie McAllister, a people group strategist who helps South Carolina Baptists engage with immigrant and refugee groups coming to the state said, “We basically help our churches have a missional vision in South Carolina, but also in our nation and around the world. It’s interesting how God has brought the nations really to our own doorsteps. We are trying to find out who is here, where they are, who are the ones that are the most underserved, who are the ones that are in need of hearing the gospel …”
The Baptist Courier reported an Indian church planter in the Greenville area named Suresh Jonnalagadda as saying, “Many of us think that missions is going to some other country, but, fortunately, in the Lord’s providence and in His economy, the Lord is bringing people to our doorstep here, to the U.S. There are many ethnicities here, many nationalities here … . So, it’s our honor, responsibility and a privilege God has given us to reach out to them with Christ’s love and bring them into the kingdom.”
Tim and Jody Cross are just part of a much larger work among evangelicals in South Carolina of opening their lives and homes to welcome immigrants and refugees from around the world. They are motivated by the love of Jesus, the value and dignity of each refugee, and the love exhibited by the church members that are joining with them in this needed ministry of welcome and hospitality.
Tim and Jody Cross lead Open Arms Refugee Ministry in Clemson, South Carolina
Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor and writer in California and is the author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014).