ince the beginning of their relationship, Rick and Desiree Guzman have had a heart for refugees – victims of war and persecution who come to America as strangers in need of friendship.

When Rick and Desiree got married, they invited their family and friends to give to their newly formed refugee ministry (the Tolbert Refugee Assistance Fund) instead of buying gifts.  Desiree opted for a less expensive ring so she could put the savings into the ministry.

Rick and Desiree’s passion is to live out Jesus’ call to “invite the stranger in” (Matthew 25:35) – and they take it literally.  For several years, they have partnered with World Relief to welcome refugee families to Aurora, Illinois, and help them adjust to life in America – even inviting refugees on vacation with them.

In 2007, the couple’s non-profit ministry purchased Bryan House – a large brick house in Aurora, which they divided into five apartments.  The house enables working refugee families to save a year’s rent towards a down payment on a home of their own.

Home ownership, say the Guzmans, strengthens the fabric of their local community.

“Many refugee families have to move around a lot,” explains Rick, a 32-year-old attorney.  “They’re constantly chasing the most affordable rentals.”  The outcome is instability, with children being forced to switch schools and behavioral problems often developing as a result.

“We want to make sure families are ready to take the step into home ownership, with the stability to make monthly payments,” says Rick.  “For families that are stable, but lack the ability to save for a down payment, Bryan House accelerates their savings.”

Bryan House partners with World Relief to offer individual development accounts to these families, matching up to $4,000 in savings.

The Importance of Dignity

The Guzmans’ ministry goes much deeper than helping refugees save to buy a home.  It’s about relationships, they say, and learning from those who have been through the fires of persecution and the horrors of war.

“We see them as equals,” Desiree explains, “people with value and potential… not as inferiors to be pitied.  We want to encourage them to better their own circumstances, to grow in confidence and develop the tremendous strengths they already have.”

Refugees are people with enormous potential, she points out. “At Bryan House, we’re not giving them a hand-out.  They can feel proud they’ve been able to save their own money.”

Imaad’s Story

Imaad and his family came to the United States as refugees from Iraq in 2008, fleeing the violence in Baghdad. Their first week in America was spent in the home of a host family while World Relief set up an apartment and arranged health check-ups for them.

After settling in and finding employment, Imaad heard about Bryan House.  His family moved into the house and saved $10,000 towards a down payment on a home of their own.

“It means a lot for my family,” says the grateful 40-year-old.  “It’s good to own your own home… this is my dream.”

Community Christian Church

The Guzmans’ first opportunity to serve refugees arose through their church, Community Christian Church in the Chicago area.  At that time, the church was just beginning its Community 4:12 ministry, addressing the root causes of poverty in nearby Aurora.

Since that time, Desiree and Rick have been part of ongoing conversations that have changed the course of the church.  Community Christian now has a vision to reach the 20% of the world living in extreme poverty, as well as the 67% of the world living far from God.  

“If the Church is going to reach the next generation of people, [social justice] is how they’re going to do it,” says Desiree.  “Providing a way to impact those who are underserved gets people who aren’t excited about Jesus [suddenly] excited about Jesus.”

The largest segment of volunteers at Bryan House come from Community Christian Church.  Rick is now working with the church to replicate the Bryan House model for other vulnerable populations.

The Guzmans are excited to find themselves in a place where career, church, family, and volunteer life are all centered on alleviating poverty and pointing people towards God.

Take Action

Mission on Your Doorstep:  Share your experiences and learn practical skills to love your “new” neighbors – those from other nations and those on the margins – at this weekend conference hosted by World Relief.  Conference brochure, workshops, registration and directions are available here.

Get Involved Locally:  Get your church involved or volunteer at the World Relief DuPage or Aurora offices!

Thank you for helping America’s most vulnerable.