Interview and photo by Daniela Uribe, Additional photos by Misha Cohen
Most initiatives and partnerships through which Imago Dei engages in serving our city (and beyond) begin with an idea or interest from a community member. An example of this is the story of Gianna Carducci, the 22-year-old founding leader of Imago’s growing Refugee Ministry. Focused on helping refugees from Syria, Somalia and other parts of the world wracked by conflict as they arrive and transition to life in Portland, the ministry is just wrapping up its first year of activity. Recently, I got the pleasure of meeting with Gianna for coffee and discussing how this bright, young woman has been shaped by this this amazing journey and her clearly raw love for the refugee community.
How did you get into this ministry?
“It was super random and kind of funny,” Gianna says. While still in school studying Psychology, Gianna thought that church planting was her calling. She did some research at Imago, found an internship opportunity on the website and met with Josh Butler (pastor of global/local outreach) to talk about it, only to find out that that specific internship was not a thing anymore. Nevertheless, Gianna and Josh teamed up to create a more tailored internship focused on local outreach. Gianna had a passion for the Islamic community, so they went in with that as a potential focus. Although it was different from what she had initially intended, she went in with a “let’s go for it” mentality. Thus, the Refugee Ministry was born.
What did the ministry entail?
“People are coming with nothing and not being welcome or received.” As she plunged into the ministry, which evolved pretty quickly, Gianna felt that her calling had changed from church-planting to a more local focus. She connected with the Refugee Care Collective (RCC), an organization designed to bring churches together to care for incoming Refugees. The RCC introduced two major ways of getting involved: mentoring families during their first year of resettlement and putting together “restart kits” filled with kitchenware, bathroom supplies and other necessities to help stock their apartments. Imago Dei as a whole first participated during last year’s Advent season, gathering different restart kits for each living area. Gianna was overwhelmed by the outpour of support from the start. So many kits were received that extra volunteers had to come in to help sort and move them.
Then, after Christmas, the Refugee Ministry held its first gathering, an orientation for getting involved on “resettlement teams” to mentor refugee families. Since it was still a fresh ministry within Imago, Gianna thought maybe 20 people would be interested; more than 300 showed up. “[It felt] like I had jumped on a moving train, and God just said ‘Come on,’” she says.
After the initial screening of emails, the ministry had 27 teams of 4-8 people ready to get involved, 9 of which have now been placed with refugee families through the RCC and Lutheran Communities, another partner organization. So many people were interested in helping and more teams were forming than families arriving, so Gianna had the difficult task of turning teams away for a time. Now the ministry has added Catholic Charities to its partners, new teams are being matched and orientations for new volunteers at Imago are starting up again.
What has been your favorite part?
There are many things, she explains, but eventually, we wind down to one: meeting new people. For her, it has been really rewarding to be able to be in community with so many people and hear about their heart for service. She got to see the Imago Dei community react to the need and work on innovative ways to help such as ESL classes and starting community gardens to help provide fresh food. She has seen people’s sincere desire to contribute. “People are offering cars and rooms in their houses. They just want to find a way to help.” She’s also had the opportunity to meet with the families coming in and hearing the stories about their journeys from refugee camps to America.
What was the most difficult part?
She doesn’t even hesitate before saying, “Surrendering it to God after we got it started.” She mentions hitting the ground running and how easy it was to get carried away. She started getting all these ideas on to help the ministry grow and change and found herself asking God “can we make this happen now?”
“When you get excited with something, it’s easy to forget it’s not yours,” she says. There were moments when she had to remind herself to stay sensitive to the Spirit and remember that though she was the leader, it was still God’s ministry.
What is it that you really want people to know about this ministry?
As part of her capstone project for school, Gianna incorporated her passion for this issue into her Psychology major. As a result, she learned a lot about what it means to be a refugee in Portland. When Gianna started on this ministry, she expected most of the refugees coming in to be Middle-eastern. With the current media coverage on the Syrian refugee crisis, it’s a common misconception. In reality, though, most have come from the Central African Republic, Somalia, Burma, and other places in addition to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. She wants people to know that the crisis is not limited to what is seen or heard in the news. There is much more to know about the process, such as the fact that is takes 2-3 years to successfully relocate. For a refugee, a ‘successful’ resettlement means being able to communicate well in the local language, being employed and understanding how to pay bills.
As she interviewed refugees currently in Portland to learn more about providing successful tools for rehabilitation, each family or individual mentioned how important social support is in helping them resettle in a new environment. “There are so many people who need love in this city,” She concludes, “These people are coming over with nothing and no one. [They] have been through a lot, and it’s important to welcome them with love.”
Interested in getting involved with the Refugee Ministry? Join us for a training at Imago Dei on September 22nd at 6:30pm. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.