About three years ago, God spoke to me.
He has spoken again since, but this one time was a particularly pivotal moment for me.
I have been in vocational ministry for a little over five years, holding a few different roles at my church. As part of my first job, I received regular updates from missionaries our church has supported around the world. And I had seen a number of them come through from a family serving in Italy.
“Italy! Wow, that must be nice,” is what I thought, the first two years those letters arrived in the mail.
But then, one day, another update arrived, and I opened it and began to read. Suddenly I heard a voice saying, “You could do that.” Short and simple. And my world began to take a different course.
Now, to be fair, God didn’t say, “Lauren, pack up your clothes and your dog and your books – well, maybe not all of your books – and go to the place I will show you.” No, I realize now it was far more of a possibility than a pronouncement. But it was clear He was inviting me to step through the door.
I tucked His words into my pocket and carried them with me for about a month before sharing them with anyone else. And the family whose mission updates I had been reading? They moved home to Orlando a few months later. We met for coffee and they connected me with a few people living and working in southern Italy. And six months after that, I got connected to more folks serving in Rome and Florence. And a while after that, I got to Skype with a few of them. The momentum built over the course of two years, eventually leading me to make a Vision Trip to Rome. But let’s back up just a bit….
I lived in Florence for a semester in college in mille novecento novantasette (or, 1997) and have longed to relocate there for the past twenty years. Each year, I would plan a trip to Italy, and for various reasons, they never worked out. Until this last fall, when I visited Cinque Terre, Florence, Monte Argentario, and Rome with a dear friend (whom I met during that semester abroad) and her husband.
To be honest, I cried when we enter the city center of Florence and I cried the night before we left. I love her, and a strong tendril of her has woven itself inextricably into my DNA.
Over the course of the last two years, God has put a magnifying glass on two things: Italy and refugees. He led me to meet a team of people on staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) who are living and serving in Rome, working to create safe enclaves in the city for refugees to be welcomed, build community, and find rest.
I made a second trip to Italy earlier this year to meet the team, to connect with some of the refugees living just outside the city center, and to experience the fruit of the ministry firsthand.
God used my passion for Italy to lead me to a deep concern and care for refugees and has been guiding me to pursue my next steps in this direction. Since returning from that last trip, I have transitioned into a new role at my church. I am now a Refugee Care Coordinator, which gives me the opportunity to advocate for refugee families here in Orlando and to develop ways of effectively mobilizing the church in welcoming our new neighbors.
I love this new job, and I am amazed at the ways I am so clearly seeing God move in our community! He is stirring compassion for refugees in hearts around this city, and I pray He continues to teach us how to effectively embrace and empower the people we meet, families from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq.
Today, I am still unsure whether or not I will move to Italy and partner with refugees living in asylum there, or if I will continue working in the U.S. in resettlement and integration. I continue to step into the lamplight that God shines at my feet, moving as He guides me. However, I am sure of one thing: the local church is invaluable in the process of refugee recovery. I desire to partner first with her, wherever that may be, to bring hope to the hopeless and a true experience of belonging to those who are shut out.
Because, to me, the church knows what it feels like to be an outsider, and to be welcomed. The church knows what it feels like to have wounded hearts mended, to have personal stories that are heard and validated, to be lost in life and then to be sought and found. The church is not a building; it is a global community of people who are bound not by rules and restrictions, but by the scandalous grace we have received from God and somehow accepted.
I believe the church is the best possible recovery room for the traumatized, the lonely, and the grieved, and I pray that, across the globe, she realizes her strength and power to push back against the darkness that threatens the lives of the 65+ million people displaced around the world. There is hope. Let’s claim it!