Fireworks in Saint Paul July 4, 2012

On July 1st I moved from Minneapolis to downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. (The two locations are only about 12 miles away, and are known as the Twin Cities). When my fiancee, Jasmine, and I get married in early August, we’ll live there together.

Two days ago, on July 4th, I gathered with friends just two blocks away at the Wabasha Street bridge on Kellogg Boulevard to watch the fireworks being launched on the Mississippi River. This video captures approximately the last 12 minutes of the show, including the grand finale.

I was there with a group from International Village Church, and other invited friends. We were a gathering of Bhutanese and Karen (from Myanmar) refugees, Philippinos, and Americans. Aside from our gathering, it was nice to see a very diverse crowd around us.

We came together at about 6:30pm to eat picnic-style and hang out in the midst of the heat wave that has been affecting the Midwest. The humidity never did subside all that much, even as the fireworks finally began at 10:15pm, but it was a fun evening.

This video was taken from my smartphone, which doesn’t take the best footage in the world. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.

The Incredible Mission Opportunities In Our Cities

“I’ve seen the bumper stickers in Dade County in Miami, even in church parking lots, where they say, ‘Will the last American to leave Miami please bring the flag?’ I’ve seen the propositions in California that want us to build a wall to keep the world out. But they haven’t read—obviously—Psalm 24 which says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s.’ This country is not ours. It is the Lord’s.”

These are the words of Ray Bakke, chancellor and professor of Global Urban Studies at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington. Ray shared these and many other thoughts in a 23-minute Moody Radio address given on November 24, 2011. Titled “Compassion: The Drama of Urban Evangelization, Part 2,” it’s a thought-provoking message very much worth listening to (audio available here).

Ray provides many fascinating statistics demonstrating what God is doing, particularly in US cities, to bring the nations of the world to our doorstep. Ray also brings a probing challenge to the body of Christ to respond accordingly. I’d like to summarize his address here.

Ray begins his address by speaking of Onesimus, the Biblical slave of Philemon who became so dear to the apostle Paul that most of the book of Philemon is made up of Paul’s appeal for Onesimus’ freedom. Ray refers to Onesimus as “a refugee who became the Bishop of Ephesus,” as it is believed. He suggests that it was Onesimus who first gathered together the Pauline letters of the New Testament, a point that Eric Sammons of the Diocese of Venice in Florida also emphasizes. Later in his address, Ray reminds us that Jesus was born in Asia in a borrowed barn, before He and His family became refugees in Africa.

“The Lord is spreading the world out, and the frontier of world missions has shifted,” Ray adds at one point. “No longer is it across the ocean only.”

God has a history of taking care of refugees and immigrants, and calling His people to love and show hospitality to the strangers He sovereignly brings to live among them. A reading of the Law given through Moses to ancient Israel will confirm this. How is God granting such opportunities to the body of Christ in America today? Ray shares these highlights:

A. There are more Jews living in New York City than in Israel, more in Miami than in Tel Aviv.
B. The United States is the second largest African nation, after Nigeria.
C. The US is the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
D. Pittsburg has more than 50,000 Serbs.
E. There are more than 250,000 Arabs, Chaldeans, and Iraqis living in the Dearborn, Michigan area.
F. Representatives of 123 nations (i.e. 2/3 of the world) live in just one New York City zip code, in the Flushing neighborhood in North Central Queens, home of the World’s Fair in 1964-65.
G. Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities have become “catch basins of the world.”

Ray didn’t specifically mention the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/Saint Paul) where I live, but this place is also very much a catch basin for the nations, particularly refugees. I’ll share more about this momentarily. Ray does go on to describe, though, what God is doing in other parts of the West and elsewhere (Yes, despite strong rhetoric in certain Evangelical circles to the contrary, I do believe God is behind these things):

A. London: The east side of the city is largely Asian, the west side is largely Arab, and the south features a large number of black and Caribbean peoples. “There were 52 nations in the British empire. Now all 52 nations live in London,” but “the British church is not ready for this.

B. France: “There are 46 countries in the world on 5 continents that speak French, and 26 of them are in west Africa… The French, for 150 years, were messing up those countries in many interesting ways. Now those people are coming back to France, and the people in France don’t like that one bit.” (Does the body of Christ there have a different stance?)

C. The Chinese people: “God has scattered about 80 million Chinese into all the major cities in the world,” Ray adds, and many of the believers among them are “linked up by fax machines and email and a common mailing list of the Chinese Coordinating Committee for World Evangelism in Hong Kong [this is the first I’ve heard about this]… Could God be scattering the Chinese through the cities of the world to prepare for an Asian Pentecost in the 21st century?” In Birmingham, Alabama, there were 6 Chinese restaurants in 1990. Six years later there were 66.

D. Rapid urbanization: In 1900, only 9% of the world’s population lived in cities. Now over 50% do. Presently there are some 400 cities with 1 million people or more, 100 cities with more than 2 million, and 23 cities with at least 10 million people.

Ray believes that there are at least five specializations in urban ministry:

1. Working with at-risk people who have come to our cities
2. Community organizing and church-based development (Ray says, “Christians can actually adopt the last, least, and lost in the worst neighborhoods in our cities, and move into those cities, and establish a beachhead of the gospel, and then rebuild those neighborhoods.”)
3. Multi-lingual (Ray cites 1st Baptist Church in Flushing, NY, with 63 nations in membership)
4. Laity (many are also called into professions to take personal faith into public places)
5. Pastors (they can learn how to enable congregations to worship beyond our own limited cultural experience)

I love what Ray said in point #2 above. This speaks of intentionally living or setting up community-impacting organizations in difficult places, when a desire for comfort might call us elsewhere, in order to help see those places transformed. I see the need for that where I live. Not only are there crime-ridden and impoverished areas deeply in need of being impacted by God’s kingdom, but the Twin Cities are also rapidly taking on more of an international flavor, especially as a new home for various refugee groups. According to City Vision, a very resourceful ministry located in Minneapolis,

Over 575,000 new immigrants have flooded into the Twin Cities over the last few years with 90% of them unreached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In 2002, the Brookings Institute named the Twin Cities one of the top 10 “Gateway Cities” in America for new immigrants/refugees.  In 2004, Minnesota was third in the nation for new refugees only behind California and Florida.  The Twin Cities is now home to the largest Hmong, Somali, and Oromo Ethiopian concentrations in the U.S. as well as the second largest populations for Liberians and Tibetans.  In addition, over 125,000 Hispanics now call the Twin Cities their home.  The Philips Neighborhood in South Minneapolis is currently the most ethnically diverse single neighborhood in America with 100+ languages spoken there.  This is all the just “the tip of the ethnic iceberg” with over 200 languages spoken throughout the Twin Cities area.

A month ago, I wrote about a ministry that my fiancée, Jasmine, and I are involved with, “International Village.” This ministry is helping to meet the needs of, and bring the hope of Christ to, immigrant and refugee groups whom God has brought to north Saint Paul in recent years. This area has seen an influx, in particular, of Bhutanese, Karen (from Myanmar), Hmong, and Somalian refugees.

By God’s grace, last week we were able to sign a lease for an ideally-located property about 1/2 mile from the Drop-In Center run by International Village. Lord willing, this place will soon provide representatives of these refugee groups with an avenue to produce and sell handicrafts and other ethnic products, and be a community gathering place where relationships can be built and lives impacted by the gospel. We’re in over our heads financially, but we’re trusting God for all that we need in terms of resources, finances, and people. As I was researching the demographics around the area where we’re setting up this business, I used a very fascinating tool developed by the New York Times and came across numbers like this:

Area Location* # of People % White % Black % Hispanic % Asian % Other
Directly north 4,992 38% 10% 11% 35% 5%
Northeast 5,471 25% 15% 8% 45% 7%
Directly south 2,226 37% 23% 17% 12% 12%
Further south 2,240 19% 40% 4% 34% 4%
Southwest 2,897 24% 16% 14% 45% 2%
East 2,474 39% 29% 15% 13% 4%
TOTAL 20,300 6,173 (30%) 3,908 (19%) 2,230 (11%) 6,862 (34%) 1,147 (6%)

*I.e., in relation to the business (these areas seem to average about 6-7 blocks east to west, and 6-7 blocks north to south)

“Take a fresh look at your cities,” says Ray. “It’s not just a black and white thing.” His words hold true for the neighborhoods in north Saint Paul described above. Only 49% in that area are either black or white. The largest percentage belongs to Asians (34%). It’s likely that Somalians make up a good percentage of the group described as “other.”

On a sobering note, Ray adds that gated communities in the US are growing faster than ghettos at this time. “Middle-class Americans, including Christians, flee the cities, just when the Lord sent the world to the cities.” May it be that this trend does not hold true among God’s people, and that we engage with the lost, the hurting, and the needy instead of retreating from them. May God open our eyes to see the incredible open door He has given us to minister the gospel to growing numbers of unreached people just down the street, a few blocks away, or in the nearest city.

“Just when it was expensive to send missionaries over the ocean, they [the nations] are coming here at their own expense. It’s the great bargain in world missions. But will the church be there for them?”


Ray Bakke shared five additional times on this subject on Moody Radio during the month of November 2011. These audio clips can be accessed here at no cost.

Formula for Frustration and the work of International Village (Twin Cities)

Since November 2011, my schedule has allowed me to gather with a group of believers in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday evenings. This assembly, International Village Church, is led by a good friend of mine. It’s been a great blessing to continue growing spiritually with these brothers and sisters. We meet in a storefront, drop-in center where, throughout the week, refugees and immigrants are receiving practical assistance (ESL instruction, job search assistance, etc.) and being ministered to with the love of Christ. This center also opened in early November, and it’s already meeting needs in the community, with even greater things yet to come.

On February 4th, my friend, John, led us in a great discussion based on Genesis 29-30, which two days later he turned into a blog post titled “Formula for Frustration.”  I’d like to share that post here (which is no longer available at his former site). Ultimately, this message is about maintaining hope by cherishing, holding onto, and focusing on the tremendous spiritual blessings we have in Christ:

On Saturday at church, we attempted to plow through the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah in Genesis 29-30.  What a messed up, real, yet hopeful story of God’s blessing in the midst of chaos.  My thoughts centered on the reality that God continued to bless Rachel and Leah in the midst of their longing for other things.  Rachel was given love from her husband, and Leah blessed with many children.  Both were said to be blessings from the Lord.  We find these two ladies continually crying out for something they couldn’t have.

Contentment is a nasty ordeal, isn’t it?  Perhaps one of the easiest ways for us to lose focus on the blessing of God over our lives is to think about what we don’t have.  What we’ve lost.  What we wish could be.  If I was just in that place, that job, married to that person . . . and on and on the ride goes.  We’ve all been here.  Perhaps some of us live here.  And it is certainly a formula for frustration.  A sure way to stay miserable – just ignore the blessings of God poured out over our lives.

At times I have thought that American culture is completely backwards when it comes to being content in our current situation.  Craving for money, power, and success truly does rule our lives at times.  I’ve often idolized pieces of African, Asian, and Latino culture because of the strong relational focus they bring.  While these traits are wonderful gifts from the Lord, discontentment knocks on all of our doors.  It pounds and pounds to the point where we either deal with it or continue to ignore it.  Every culture, every family, every person deals with this gnawing feeling to try to escape and not deal with what is before them.

What then would this mean in challenging the most vulnerable to embrace the blessings God has given them?  While the refugee highway may be paved with pain, loss, and tears, it is also a place where God continues to lavish his rich blessings.  God gives many who are stranded on this highway the ability to keep going, keep moving, and stay hopeful.  What a gift.  That hope can come from no one other than the Sustainer of all things who continues to bless.  I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive on such a highway, but I do know what it feels like to lose things, people, and abilities that are precious to me.  My dear friend Paul taken by a logging accident in college.  My eyesight taken away day by day.  Seeing dear friends and colleagues struggle deeply through horrible train wrecks in their marriages and careers.  It isn’t exactly a refugee highway, but it sure has the markings of hell that roll over many parts of the globe.

Into this we all have to learn how to speak of, sing out, and perhaps scream aloud the rich, wonderful, extravagant blessings of God.  He is the Source.  He holds it all together.  We can’t afford to live in frustration by ignoring His strong hand in all things.

International Village Church is “a new church north of downtown St. Paul, with a heart to serve the diverse ethnic groups in our city.” In addition to the already-established Hmong population in this area, the surrounding neighborhoods feature a growing number of refugees from Somalia, Myanmar (the Karen people), and Bhutan. John and his wife have been living in this community for about three years. John says this about the work and focus of International Village:

International Village is a community-focused, drop-in friendship center and church planting ministry in St. Paul.  We strive to see people empowered vocationally, educationally, and spiritually while remaining a launch pad for various ethnic ministries throughout our area.

We are a new ministry project of the Minnesota Assemblies of God and International Teams MSP [Minneapolis/Saint Paul] that reaches out in practical ways to our new neighbors all around us.  Over the past three years we’ve met new refugees at the airport, provided basic necessities when they first arrive, taught them to ride the bus, helped in learning English, as well as a variety of other practical needs.  These needs have primarily been met through meeting people at their apartments and helping them navigate through the gauntlet of choices that we have in this great country.

Now, with the opening of International Village, we will strive to be a place where many of these needs can be accessed more quickly and in a more concentrated way.  We will function as a neighborhood resource center and faith community.  The goal is to be a center that continues to demonstrate the social service needs that we’ve been addressing thus far, while adding to it concentrated Bible studies, ministry development, and the training of ethnic ministry leaders.

God has sovereignly arranged for an increasing population from amongst the unreached people groups around the world to relocate and spring up here in the US, especially in urban centers. Here they will have far greater access to the gospel than in the lands from which they came, and more so as the Church recognizes what God is doing and what great opportunities are before us. It’s encouraging to see God raising up efforts like International Village to meet this challenge.