To the children of her apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia, Melissa Johnson is the “candy lady.” Ever since last Halloween, kids in search of treats began following her car as soon as it entered the neighborhood. Johnson takes these opportunities to keep up with their lives, asking about their family or their day at school. When it’s warm, the neighborhood transforms into a playground. Johnson spends her afternoons playing soccer with Sudanese boys or swimming with girls from Bhutan. Her kindness to the children opens doors of conversation with their parents. They are curious about Johnson and her roommates—the only white Americans in the complex.
Clarkston is the most diverse square mile in the country—home to thousands of refugees who have sought the safety and freedom of life on U.S. soil. And yet many of them have never interacted with a single American. Johnson wants to see this change, starting with the Christian community. “There are unreached people groups right in our backyard,” she said. “People I would never have been able to talk to are my neighbors.”
While many missions organizations are involved with the area’s refugees, few Christians actually live there.
While many missions organizations are involved with the area’s refugees, few Christians actually live there. Since moving to Clarkston in 2014, Johnson has become a regular shopper at the local Thriftown and a loyal patron at the Nepalese restaurant down the road. She is a familiar face at the weekly tutoring workshop for Sudanese teens. “It's one thing to come in and help,” she said. “It's another thing to live day-in, day-out within the same neighborhoods, experiencing the same things, the same problems.”
For Johnson, building relationships with these families is more than a ministry project. She’s slowly learning the names and faces of hijab-covered women in her neighborhood. She welcomes people into her home, preparing tea differently for her Indian and Middle Eastern friends. Thanks to the warm hospitality of refugee culture, she is regularly invited to meals and family gatherings. But this type of ministry requires time, energy, and patience. Johnson might disciple a Hindu woman on Wednesday, knowing that the woman will still do puja—idol worship—on Thursday. Or she may wait an entire year for the Somalian family next door to finally invite her into their home, after countless surface-level interactions.
“It's one thing to come in and help. It's another thing to live day-in, day-out within the same neighborhoods, experiencing the same things, the same problems.”
Yet each small victory is worth celebrating. Johnson recently attended the birthday party of a young girl whose family was displaced from Iraq. There, any association with Christians would have cost them their lives. But here, after months of authentic friendship, she has become like an older sister to their two teenage daughters. The mother has begun to read passages from the New Testament in Arabic. She feels comfortable asking Johnson questions of faith and what it means to love God. The family will even invite her to pray to “Isa,” the Arabic name for Jesus, before they eat together. Yet for them, the decision to follow Jesus is so serious—and the consequences so real—that it is a slow process.
As would be true of anyone, there are those moments when Johnson grows weary of sharing her life with others. “If I were a non-Christian, I would just go to work and come home and get to do whatever I want,” she said. “But since I want to give my life away, my schedule’s full.” Johnson says she wouldn’t trade her current joy for all the comforts of a “normal” American way of life—a phrase at which she balks. “I don’t know what a normal American life looks like,” she said. Whatever the American dream is, she surrenders it willingly for the sake of the gospel. “I want to give up my nights and my days for the kingdom,” she said. “I don’t want my life to be spent for myself.” And as each day of her life is spent in Clarkston, the light of Christ shines bright, reaching far beyond her doorstep.