Marc Wyatt’s recent Facebook posts are a microcosm of the immigration controversy: “Refugee family coming – maybe.” “Welcome has been canceled.” “Refugee family finally here!” And then a news video: “For refugees, uncertain times in Raleigh.”
He and his wife, Kim, both 1986 Wingate graduates, are at the forefront of refugee-resettlement efforts in the Triangle area. In 2015, they established Welcome House Raleigh, a joint effort of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and they have hosted about 150 newcomers since, including a family that arrived Friday after having been temporarily waylaid by President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order.
Although the Wyatts expected changes in immigration policy after November’s election, they didn’t expect such a sudden shift. The week between the issuance of the travel ban and a judge’s stay found them comforting those affected and encouraging local families already reaching out to newcomers to deepen those relationships.
“Many calls, e-mails, messages, and texts have been coming in,” the Wyatts wrote in an emailed call to prayer a day or so after the executive order. “Refugees are afraid. Volunteers and advocates are upset and want to know what to do.”
CBF field workers for more than two decades, the Wyatts see their main role as connecting newcomers with caring volunteers, many of whom are Christians discovering a growing mission field at their doorstep.
Matching needs with helpers
“I see myself as a matchmaker, but in the sense of friendship,” Kim explains. “I match folks from our churches to newly arrived families.”
She said contract organizations given the task of helping refugees get established offer limited financial assistance for only three months, after which newcomers are expected to make it on their own. The Wyatts and their volunteer teams don’t wait, but begin to fill in the gaps in service as soon as people arrive.
“Their immediate needs are for very practical things – they need a home, English, a job, a community that will walk with them as they handle the details of living in a new place,” Kim says. “Imagine being in a foreign country and realizing you have to fill out tax forms in a language you don’t even understand.”
Her “matchmaking” takes on many forms, such as facilitating English classes with the help of 15 volunteer teachers, coordinating one-on-one assistance with job applications, and assigning volunteers to accompany newcomers to parent/teacher conferences or doctor’s appointments.
“It’s the simple things in the midst of all that is going on, where we are confident that the love of Christ comes through,” Kim says. “God is working in that incarnational midst, where, as it says in Matthew, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’”
Strangers in a strange land
The Wyatts, whose first missionary assignment was in Thailand, know a bit about how it feels to be displaced.
“Every second of the two-plus years we were in Thailand, we were foreigners, oddballs in a foreign place,” Marc says. “That was really a gift from God, because now we have an empathy toward immigrants and newcomers. We understand what it is like to be a grownup but not be able to do the work you want to do because you can’t speak the language or you don’t understand the culture.”
The couple’s knowledge of how to establish Welcome House and build a network of support comes from the 15 years they spent in Canada, helping to start the Matthew House movement. Although he didn’t know where their ministry was headed when they were reassigned from Southeast Asia to North America, Marc said he will never forget a revelatory encounter with an Afghan man at the newly opened Matthew House in Toronto in 1998.
“We were there with our sons, who were similar in age,” Marc says. “He couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak his language, and yet we were there sharing a meal. And I remember I had this ‘aha’ moment, when I felt God speaking to my heart. I knew that God had brought us both there, that it was a divine intersection. He wanted me to understand what He was up to in bringing people to us. Yes, missionaries go to faraway lands, but God is also bringing people from faraway nearby. They are in the cubicle next to you at work, or they may be your neighbor down the block or in a part of your city that you are not familiar with.”
It’s that vision and model of ministry-through-hospitality that led to the establishment of Matthew Houses in a dozen other Canadian cities and also the model that the Wyatts have shared with churches in North Carolina. They’ve been delighted to see volunteers become advocates and then “family” to internationals, many of whom were forced to flee their own countries for fear of their lives.
Encouraging faith, quelling fears
Although the Wyatts say they’ve found support for the Welcome House in the faith and business communities, they’ve also faced questions from immigration opponents.
“When we hear people say these refugees shouldn’t be coming here, I share with them that they are the most vetted of any international, more than students, immigrants or visitors,” Kim says. “For some of them, it has taken 15 to 20 years before they are invited to come.”
Mainly, she invites naysayers to get to know a refugee, and then, she says, the fears and questions resolve themselves. Marc said when people no longer feel threatened, they are much more open to the scriptural mandate of loving their neighbors. The couple has seen believers with an unfulfilled calling to serve abroad seize on the opportunity to minister to refugees from the countries that had most burdened their hearts. They’ve also seen churches follow the Matthew House model and begin to open their own transitional homes.
The Wyatts’ journey
Marc and Kim had each felt a call to foreign missions even before college. He is from Hickory and studied religion at Wingate. A Durham native, she majored in math education. They said Wingate played a formative role in growing their faith.
“Jim McCoy was our campus minister. He gave us opportunities to be in leadership, to dig into and unpack our faith,” Kim said. “At the time, for me personally, I was very shy. Even though I felt called to be a teacher, I didn’t enjoy public speaking. Being able to practice public speaking in the classroom, even when it was not in my natural skill set, gave me tools to build on.”
Both were heavily involved in the Christian Student Union.
Married just two weeks after graduation, the couple was already talking with Baptist leaders about becoming missionaries even as Marc was earning his master of divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Kim has a master’s in education from Virginia Commonwealth University. The Wyatts served churches in Virginia, where both their children were born, before they headed to Thailand.
They welcome others to connect with them via Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.