Aaron and Amy Lee* treat their home in Chicago’s northern suburbs a little like they did their home in Africa: with openness. The backyard, suited for their three boys (and another little guy due in August), shouts invitation.
And that’s just how the refugee families they meet see it, too.
Not long ago, a refugee family they had met from Afghanistan came over to visit, unannounced. The Lees weren’t home, but the family stayed, unleashing their kids in the backyard to play.
The next time they saw each other, the parents told the Lees, “Our kids enjoyed playing in your backyard!”
Sitting in their living room on a recent Friday, the Lees grin. That’s just how they want it.
“We want to focus on loving our neighbor, on opening our home to them,” Aaron says. “And on bringing them into our lives.”
This wasn’t exactly how Aaron imagined his life as a little boy, but it has how God has worked things out, and how a dream partly lived can continue.
Since he was young, Aaron had longed to become an overseas missionary. In fact, as little kids, Aaron and I happened to be in Rainbow Club together, which was how our parents kept us kids occupied while they, nearly all from Hong Kong, attended a Cantonese-speaking, bi-weekly fellowship at Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago.
Even now, three decades later, I remember us all sitting in a circle as our Rainbow Club teacher asked us to take turns sharing what we wanted to do when we grew up. My answer changed every few months—I wanted to become a firefighter and then a paleontologist and then a neurosurgeon. Instead, I became a journalist.
Not Aaron. He was steadfast. I remember him telling us, “When I grow up, I want to become a missionary in another part of the world and tell people about Jesus.”
I remember being impressed by his conviction. But I didn’t think much of it until two decades later when he and Amy, who jokes she “married into all this,” started raising money to go overseas with The Navigators.
And so, for nearly five years, from September 2010 to January 2015, the pair, along with their growing family, lived out Aaron’s dream as oversees missionaries for The Navigators in Africa, learning the local language and ministering to people who didn’t know Jesus.
But then, Amy experienced a dramatic turn in her health. She had always had eczema, but in Africa, it became full blown.
“There weren’t very many Asians in the city,” Aaron says, “and her language tutor came over, and she looks at Amy, and says, ‘Where’s Amy? I’m Amy’s friend.’”
Amy looked so different, her friend suggested Amy might need a doctor’s note to get back into the United States.
“By that point,” Amy says, “I didn’t look like my passport picture.”
Amy was also pregnant with their third child at the time, which further complicated her health issues. The Lees had no choice. They had to come back to Chicago.
They had been back every couple of years for furloughs and for the births of their sons, but this felt different.
There was the obvious question of, “What are we going to do?”
But for Aaron, in particular, there was an adjustment to the vision he had for his life since he was a little boy in Rainbow Club.
“All I wanted to do was go overseas, so coming back, all that was gone,” he says. “And just hearing Jesus say, ‘Am I enough?’ And just being able to soak that in: Absolutely, Jesus is enough.”
After the Lees returned to the Chicago area, The Navigators suggested they take six months to rest and get healthy as they re-integrated.
Amy’s face stopped swelling. Her eczema cleared. She and Aaron had their third son, who’s now 2 years old. In their living room, he toddles around his parents, who sit on a couch near a table laden hand-woven baskets, wooden spoons and forks, and carved lions and giraffes, tactile reminders from their time living overseas. Keegan’s older brothers play with a Nintendo Wii in the basement, their occasional squeals punctuating their parents’ conversation.
As they settled back in Chicago, the Lees found the passion God had instilled in them had not changed.
“Our hearts were still for the nations and reaching the unreached people groups of the world,” Aaron says. “Our picture is being a light to the darkest places in the world, in particular places where we aren’t free to speak the name of Jesus.”
God started connecting them with person after person, merging their local environment with their global experiences.
The Lees, who once worked for World Relief, a Christian organization that serves refugees, reconnected with a refugee woman they met a decade ago. (As of January, more than 30,000 refugees have settled around the Chicago area since 2002, according to the Chicago Tribune.) Then, several months back, Aaron struck up a conversation with a family of refugees on the Chicago Transportation Authority’s Yellow Line train.
“They looked a little out of place,” Aaron says. “We invited them over. . . .”
“Actually, he invited himself over,” Amy says of Aaron, laughing.
The relationship has bloomed. The Lees have gone over to the family’s home and vice versa, and they have also met another refugee family from Afghanistan.
Given that some families speak Farsi or other languages the Lees don’t know, they say they rely mostly on some English, along with Google Translate, which has resulted in some amusing conversations.
A dad from a refugee family, Aaron recalls, was using Google Translate to invite them over for dinner. “And the translation came over, ‘We come poison food!’ I didn’t know if we should go!”
As they’ve gotten to know refugee families, the Lees have learned that several are dealing with high levels of trauma. Aaron recalls seeing a photo of a man he has befriended, sobbing near a blown-up mosque. The explosion had killed the man’s brother.
Others struggle with finances. Men and women who were doctors, lawyers, and engineers in their home countries settle for anything providing a consistent income in America, finding themselves cleaning airplanes and scrubbing toilets. Eighty to 90 percent of their take-home pay in America goes to paying rent.
“How do we help them develop holistically with their jobs, with economic development, with financial literacy?” Aaron asks.
He says through his work as a Navigator, along with Goodcity, an organization focusing on entrepreneurship, he has been able to visit mosques to talk to imams and sheikhs about candidates for employment or about those who might need help starting a business.
“We’re trying to give them a little bit of hope,” Aaron says. “We’re trying to empower them. We value the ability they have, and that just gives us a door into their lives and into their families and whatever’s going on. When I’m sitting down talking about a business plan, we’re talking about life.”
Aaron, who supervises some local Navigators staff with Nations Within, which focuses on people groups in the United States who are distinct from the majority culture, says he and Amy hope to build a team of people here who have a heart to reach people and families here who can then help reach the nations.
Even with potential government restrictions on the number of refugees to the United States, people from some of the hardest-to-reach countries are continuing to arrive in America, notes Aaron.
“They’re coming, and they’re our neighbors,” he says. “The desire is to see one household reached that can impact and reach other households around the world.
“Coming back, we’re seeing we can still be investing our lives in people anywhere we go, that we’re not restricted by location. Our calling is the same: to disciple people, wherever they are.”
*Names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of the ministry.
Written by Erin Chan Ding, freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators
Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman