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Spokane has become a refugee resettlement destination under Mark Finney’s leadership of World Relief

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 2, 2018, 8:03 a.m.

World Relief director Mark Finney leads the organization’s refugee resettlement program in Spokane. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
World Relief director Mark Finney leads the organization’s refugee resettlement program in Spokane. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Mark Finney keeps a small rainbow of notes stuck to his computer.

On them are a handful of useful phrases that he’s trying to learn in Kurdish, Swahili and Karen, just a few of the dozens of languages spoken by his clients. He speaks only English fluently, but he wants to be able to say “See you later,” “How are you?” and the like to everyone who comes through his doors.

As director of World Relief, Finney finds himself communicating across language barriers on a daily basis. But his job this year has involved crossing cultural and ideological barriers, too, as refugee resettlement went from a minor bureaucratic function of the U.S. government to a hot-button political and policy issue.

Finney started as a case manager at World Relief in June 2016. The organization’s former executive director left soon after, and World Relief had no local leader. When it was clear the political spotlight on refugees wasn’t going away, Finney decided he needed to step up, so he offered to take on the executive director role.

“I kind of just felt like somebody needed to do something,” he said.

Rather than shy away from the work World Relief has done in Spokane since 1989, Finney took the helm of the group and made it his mission to be more visible around Spokane. He wants to empower local churches to take on more of the hands-on work to support refugees as they transition to life in the Northwest.

“Right after the first travel ban, Mark called and said, ‘You’ve got a network of churches and we’ve got to respond,’ ” said Terry McGonigal, the director of Whitworth University’s Office of Church Engagement. They put out a call to people interested in learning to help and had 200 people show up at Fourth Memorial Church during a snowstorm with just a few days’ notice.

“We knew that we had hit a responsive chord among people of faith,” McGonigal said.

Under Finney’s leadership, World Relief has been more public, hosting celebrations for refugees here and putting out the word that they welcomed Spokane’s 10,000th refugee in October. He hopes to be a counternarrative to the idea that refugees are dangerous or don’t belong in the U.S.

“There’s a lot more to it than what you hear from the sound bites or the bumper stickers,” he said.

For Finney, standing up for refugees isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a matter of his own deep faith.

“The teachings of Jesus pretty clearly tell us he calls on us to serve indiscriminately because he loves indiscriminately,” Finney said.

World Relief is a Christian organization serving clients from dozens of countries who are Muslim, Christian, Falun Gong and most other faiths you can think of.

He explains refugee resettlement by going to the parable of the good Samaritan in the Bible. When a traveler is stranded half-dead on a road after being robbed, a priest passes by without stopping to help, while a Samaritan – a cultural and religious outsider – stops to help.

“The point there is you don’t discriminate based on someone’s culture or religion, but you help the person who has the greatest need,” Finney said.

Among white evangelical Christians, support for cutting back on refugee admissions and immigration in general is especially high, Finney said. But he’s found most of them form their opinions based on secular sources, not biblical principles. Part of his mission is to encourage Christians across the political spectrum “to have a biblically rooted perspective on immigrants and refugees,” he said.

Finney never thought he’d be in this role. He was a youth pastor for a while and figured he’d spend his life in ministry. But he’s also a lifelong traveler and loves the moments of humor and connection that come from people reaching across cultures.

He and his wife spent a year in south and southeast Asia after he finished graduate school, and he remains touched by the people who went out of their way to help them.

The pair wound up in India’s holy city of Varanasi in July, walking along a road in scorching heat. They were content to continue their journey, but a man pulled up and offered them a ride to give them some relief.

“This guy didn’t need to do that. He didn’t need to reach across this barrier of cultures to pick up two weird-looking white Americans,” Finney said.

His favorite moments around the office are the sorts of humor and minor miscommunications that are inevitable when your staff members speak a dozen languages and your clients come from dozens of countries.

“We’re always laughing and having a good time,” he said.

Welcoming refugees is, for him, a way of living his gratitude for strangers across the world who have shown him compassion.

Though it’s not part of his job, he tries to go to the airport to greet new families when they arrive.

“Being there at that moment when somebody walks out of the airport and into America for the first time keeps my perspective on what we’re doing,” he said. “It really just keeps me focused on what a joy and a huge responsibility it is to help folks.”

McGonigal recalled Finney working overtime to help a man whose family was due to arrive from Iraq. Tickets had been purchased when President Donald Trump announced the first travel ban, which halted admissions from seven countries, including Iraq.

“There were some very serious medical issues, one of the members of the family needed to get here soon,” McGonigal said.

Finney went to the office of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and talked to a staff member who handled veterans affairs.

“Somehow they went to work and a week from the following Saturday we welcomed that family at the airport,” McGonigal said. “Mark just had tears streaming down his face.”