Joy at Montgomery for Area Refugees
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34
Orange Park Presbyterian Church and Montgomery Camp and Conference Center teamed up to bring a day of joy and new experiences to 25 young refugees from countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central America. The young people ranged in age from 6 to 17; some had been in the United States for a few years while others just a few days. Wall-climbing, archery and swimming in a lake were the planned activities, but the focus was on showing these young people they are loved.
The young people participate in language and enrichment programs at Kim’s Open Door in Jacksonville. The Orange Park Church has supported “Kim’s” for several years, providing volunteers to help with tutoring and other programs as well as funding. Many of the young people in Kim’s programs have experienced considerable trauma before relocating to the United States. Some have resettled in our country because their fathers served as translators, putting their families at risk. Others have witnessed killing of family members. Learning a new language, new customs, making new friends and experiencing new foods can be stressful for young people.
The camp day field trip was a day of many firsts. Most of the children had not been out of their immediate neighborhoods in the United States. So even the trip from Jacksonville to Montgomery was exciting! A young man from Syria ate his first hot dog (no bun, but every topping made available). A Muslim girl from Eritrea exclaimed she was wearing “American clothes” for the first time when she was provided a Montgomery t-shirt and long baggy shorts for swimming.
Montgomery counselors gave instructions in English; Montgomery’s Executive Director Monica Williams translated into Spanish and one of the older Arabic girls translated into Arabic. “Many of the children were able to conquer fear when they went wall climbing and swimming. Most of these children had never been swimming,” explained Kim Bogart, founder of Kim’s Open Door, Jacksonville. “And the archery helped them build confidence with a new skill,” she added.
“None of these children could have attended a day camp experience without the generosity of the Orange Park Presbyterian Church,” Kim explained. “Their families are struggling financially. We announced the inclusion of the day camp field trip when we started the summer academic program. Many of these students participated in the summer school program just to have the opportunity to take a field trip,” Kim explained.
New relationships between students and groups of students were forged as they learned to work together as teams and enjoyed new experiences together. Montgomery counselors gained experience in working with children from different cultures and countries. Following lunch, Kim led the students in a prayer, blessing those who funded and organized the day of fun. When Kim asked the students why they thought these strangers would want to help them, they shouted loudly in unison “Because they love us!”
“Having this group of children at Montgomery was one of the most enriching experiences and outreach ministries that we had this Summer,” said Monica Williams, Montgomery Executive Director. “It was our distinct honor to host a day-camp for all of them. We witnessed how these children forgot all language and cultural barriers to have an amazing day of fun, fellowship and outdoors. We even had the chance to pray together,” Williams added.
She continued, “Providing experiences like these, especially to historically underserved and marginalized children, is what gives sense to the existence of Montgomery as a ministry of the Presbytery of St. Augustine. We pray and hope for many more opportunities to create this kind of program, as those children asked over and over: ‘Can we come every day?’”
Jesus said to welcome the stranger. There are many ways to help new immigrants and refugees build better lives in NE Florida. More information about how you or your church can support this camp experience or other programs, contact Marjorie Phillips, ruling elder at Orange Park, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Marjorie Phillips and Monica Williams for submitting this article and the photos. Permission was granted by the parents to include the photos.