This is the second part of our 3 part series! If you haven’t read the first post, check it out here
After almost seven years in the Middle East, Denise Smith came back to the US searching for identity and purpose. She finally found a place that felt like home to her when she started Peace of Thread, an organization that trains and employs local refugee women to design and sew one of a kind bags. Denise fell in love with the people and the culture of the refugee community in Clarkston, Georgia.
However, Denise began to struggle because every night she would head back to her house in a predominantly white, middle class, Christian suburbia. The back and forth between the two worlds began to wear on her. Her friends began to question her, and Denise felt frustrated and misunderstood.
“My American friends would ask ‘Why can’t these refugees just be like Americans?’ I began to avoid my culture, and I found myself very lonely, isolated, and unable to relate to them anymore. I found myself with a very culturally dysfunctional heart.”
One of the most challenging things was the lack of understanding many people had about refugees, what it means for them to come to America, what it means for them to integrate and adjust, and what it means for them to become “American.”
“These refugees do live in America, but they are not culturally ‘American.’ Would I even want them to be culturally American? If I did, what would that look like? What would Jesus want that to look like?”
Denise posed a question that many of us rarely take the time to think about. In this era of fear of the “other,” it is such an important thought to dwell on. Denise’s heart is to see people live in the fullness of who God created them to be. It is the core of her work with Peace of Thread and what motivated her to go to Clarkston in the first place.
“He created them Muslim and placed them in their country. When they had to flee, was that a surprise to Him? No, it’s been more of a surprise to us. Many of us feel like we have to make them into something that they are not. What is it inside of us that makes us feel like we have to change somebody? We are not the maker of anything; HE is. We only get to let Him use us.”
Anyone who has worked in a cross-cultural context can relate to this: the dichotomy of your two homes. One is the home you are from, that you love and cherish. The other is the home that you choose. Denise’s two homes were at odds with one another. One was wealthy, whitewashed, and “safe.” The other was rough, chaotic, and messy. Going back and forth between these two homes became discouraging for Denise.
“I would find myself going to church and singing songs, and I would think that this isn’t doing anything. It’s just air. They’re not really changing anything. They’re just going back to their beautiful little houses and their garage door openers.”
Denise’s conversations with her American community continuously revolved around the word fear. She began to count every time she had someone tell her to be safe.
“That was the culture norm, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I would get in my car and cry, ‘God why is this a place of fear? Why are people afraid of what you’re doing?’”
These moments of ignorance prompted Denise to try to educate her home community on what it meant to be an immigrant or refugee.
“At one speaking engagement I asked a room of 250 people what the difference is between an immigrant and a refugee. No one except for a foreigner could tell me. It was really empowering to me, because it taught me I need to do more education. I need to have a bigger voice. So I would ask God to give me more voice.”
God answered that prayer even if it came as a result of rising hate and fear in the United States. The volume on this conversation was raised to a national level. People on all sides of the issue were speaking more loudly than ever. For the first time, Denise felt like there was movement, like somebody wanted to do something. She felt this in the church as well, but she was discouraged by the lack of action.
“It just didn’t make any sense to me. We come together to worship and see the spirit of the living God and then we go back and do nothing. There was so much hate… we needed something to quiet the hate. We just need to love louder, and nobody is stepping up… why is the Church not stepping up?”
This hate became especially loud over the last year when there was strong rise in fear of immigrants and refugees. Misinformation was spread from almost every source. Even our President referred to Syrian refugees as the “ultimate trojan horse” of ISIS.
Many refugees were scared as well. They had seen people with signs and posters, they had heard sensationalized stories on their televisions. They told Denise their fears, how they were too scared to walk to work in their hijab, how they were scared they were going to be caged.
Denise wanted to throw something positive into all of the negativity that had been swirling around, so she came up with an idea called Cupcake Kindness. The basic concept was that people of the local area would love on the refugee community and make them feel welcomed and safe by bringing them cupcakes.
“Everybody can make a cupcake,” Denise said. “Just make a cupcake. Drive down to Clarkston, get off 285 and East Ponce, you turn left and you go to Indian Creek, anywhere you want, into any apartment complex, and you pass out cupcakes. And you say, ‘Welcome to America. We see you.’”
What ended up happening was quite different from what Denise expected. Not one person would go to the refugees themselves. Instead, they brought the cupcakes to her house, hundreds of them.
“It was a real challenge. People would come every day and bring cupcakes till there were piles and piles of them. You can make your poster, you can go down there and march. Why can’t you make a cupcake, and go see them? Just go welcome them. Go love them.”
Denise passed out all of the cupcakes by herself.
Denise and a few other amazing women who work at Peace of Thread have proved how important it is to show up. It’s what they’ve done for the last six years. Day after day they are there loving and working alongside these refugee women. Even with the lack of effort from her church community, Denise has not given up. However, her struggles with the church have become disheartening. Though things are getting better, after six years, she expected more. And it isn’t just Denise that has been feeling this discouragement – the refugee women have been feeling it too.
One of the refugee women with Peace of Thread has been given a platform to speak at many churches around the southeast. She gets to tell her story and the story of other women. It is incredibly important because the audience can put a face to the word “refugee.”
On one particular occasion this woman was asked to speak at a Christian conference for over 2,000 women. It was a great opportunity, but the night before she was going to speak, she became discouraged.
Denise became emotional as she told us, “This precious refugee woman looked at me and said, ‘Nothing will change, Denise. My voice will be air.’”
Her fear is far too often a reality in our communities. Someone gets on stage and tells their heartbreaking story and we are moved for a moment. Hours later we’ve forgotten and our attention is on something else. There are so few of us who actually devote ourselves to showing up again and again. We like to talk about changing the world, but if our lives are spent mostly in spaces where we feel safe and comfortable, then our words mean nothing.
Denise knows this better than anyone. She is someone who is more than talk.
“I don’t want to be somebody that just says air. That’s what still motivates me today and pushes me into hard moments, like when you have to wake up at five in the morning and you’ve been working 90 hours and nobody is showing up to help. Nobody is being their voice… For every woman that is here, there are thousands of women that nobody sees.”
This is Denise’s whole heart. It is her drive and her passion: to give these women a voice.
In part 3 of this series, we are going hear Denise explain different ways that we can show up and get involved. We will also be announcing a special giveaway, so stay tuned!
For now, be sure to check out http://www.peaceofthread.com/shop/ and check out the gorgeous bags that Peace of Thread creates!
Written by Victoria Ward and Elizabeth Endara
Copy Editor: Chelsea Risley
Photographer: Crystal Downs