Unimaginable Welcome

This fall, Houghton College Utica will open its doors to welcome its first cohort of students. Houghton’s newest extension site’s inaugural cohort is drawn entirely from the refugee population of Utica and nearby communities. From an early age, these students faced oppression because of their ethnicity and Christian faith. Their stories include years of deprivation in refugee camps and the struggle to earn a high school diploma in a new language once they were resettled in the United States.

In their application essays, these students write movingly of the dangers they confronted, the obstacles they overcame and the sacrifices their parents made so that they could come to the United States where they now enjoy freedom and the opportunity to pursue an education. One of our incoming students notes that he is the first of his ten siblings to earn a high school diploma. Thanks to Houghton College, he now plans to be the first in his family to receive a college degree. Another tells of her childhood as a refugee in Thailand selling vegetables in a marketplace to earn money to support her family. Today, she lives in Utica. This fall, she will begin her college career as a very grateful and motivated first-year college student thanks to Houghton College’s commitment to serve her and students like her in Utica.

Many of Houghton’s newest students in Utica have spoken to me of how unimaginable it would have been while they were living in a refugee camp a few short years ago to even dream that they would one day attend college. I can identify with these students. Four decades ago, when I was a Houghton undergrad, I could not have imagined that I would be asked to lead Houghton’s extension site in Utica.

While a student at Houghton, I read Discovering an Evangelical Heritage by Donald W. Dayton ‘63. It helped define for me a Christian faith that embraced both personal and social transformation and set a direction for the rest of my life. After finishing my studies at Houghton, I did social work with the Salvation Army at an inner-city emergency shelter for several years before entering seminary. For the next thirty years, I served a series of pastorates, mostly in urban or metropolitan settings. The last of these was a seventeen-and-a-halfyear tenure as the senior pastor of Utica’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. It was a transformative period for the congregation and for me. As this declining, historic, downtown church opened its heart and doors to its newest neighbors, ethnic Karen refugees from Burma (Myanmar), it was reborn. This new ministry of hospitality and welcome challenged me to develop new skills as I completed a Doctor of Ministry degree with an emphasis on cross-cultural communication and ministry. It also provided me with new avenues of ministry as I became immersed in the lives of those forced to flee their homelands. It expanded the scope of my ministry as I served on the board of our local refugee center and my denomination’s refugee taskforce. It gave me a firsthand experience of our world’s brokenness and beauty as I made several trips to visit Thailand’s refugee camps and Burma’s Christian minority.

Less than a year ago, I, too, experienced what had previously been unimaginable. I was invited to help develop Houghton’s newest extension site in Utica. Forty-three years after I entered Houghton College, my life has come full circle. As it offers Associate of Arts degree classes in Utica this fall to some of our nation’s newest residents and citizens, Houghton College also comes full circle. The little school Willard J. Houghton began 134 years ago in the Genesee Valley to provide an affordable, accessible Christian education to rural students will make that same education available to the sons and daughters of refugees and immigrants living in the Mohawk Valley’s urban neighborhoods.