A West St. Paul church is the unlikely U.S. base of operations for a 100-year-old project helping Kurdish people in the war-torn Middle East.
Over the years, Lutheran Mideast Development has helped families and children in refugee camps and urban neighborhoods where displaced Kurdish families have settled. Today that is primarily in Turkey.
Among its projects are scholarships to allow Kurdish girls to remain in school, vocational education for teens and adults, and training of social workers to help families in refugee camps.
“And the men who started this were from Minnesota,” the Rev. John Snider, of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, told a group of supporters at a recent informational event about the project. “That’s the amazing thing.”
The nonprofit is one of the state’s oldest global initiatives. It was launched in 1910 by the Rev. L.O. Fossum of Red Wing and the Rev. M.O. Wee of Luther Seminary in St. Paul as a missionary project of the U.S. and German Lutheran churches.
Over the years, the group — then known as the Lutheran Orient Mission Society — worked with Kurdish communities in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, depending on political winds and needs.
What started as missionary work morphed into humanitarian aid work, demonstrating Christianity in action rather than overt conversion, members said.
Today the nonprofit reports that it donates about 50 scholarships each year in the Istanbul neighborhood it works in. It trains about 250 women annually in sewing, weaving and textile work at another location near the Iranian border.
And along the Syrian border, about 60 women are trained each year to be social workers for refugees grappling with their next steps in life.
It’s all done on a shoestring budget — about $250,000, according to the nonprofit’s 2018 tax returns — using a model of developing the talents of local residents to work within their own communities.
Although the nonprofit buys and distributes items such as blankets, shoes and family-sized tents for Kurds in crisis, it relies less on material aid than on scholarships and training for longer-term impact, Snider said.
Lutheran Mideast Development operates with about 30 full-time field staff in several locations in Turkey, plus another 15 or so volunteers, staff said.
The Rev. Morris Wee, a Lutheran minister from the Twin Cities, was among the people listening to the report of Lutheran Mideast Development’s work. A longtime board member, he is the grandson of the minister who traveled 100 years ago to what was then the far-flung world of Kurdish communities to preach the word of Christianity and help those caught in wars and poverty.
The nonprofit has experienced periods of growth, and periods of limited engagement, over the century, Wee said. He believes his grandfather would be both proud and surprised that it has survived and still thrives in the year 2020.
But the turn-of-the-century missionary was a minister of his era. When asked what he thought his grandfather would think about the project today, Wee said: “He’d probably ask how many people have been baptized.
“But we don’t proselytize,” Wee said.
The group’s decades of work become an important symbol of reliable friendship and support, Snider said, even as the U.S. broke off military partnerships with the Kurds in northern Syria last fall.
And a development model created decades ago continues to serve the people, Snider said. He added: “We’re offering hope, not despair.”