Today we’d like to introduce you to Mark Akers.
Hi Mark, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My wife, Joani, and I were on staff at our church for 18 years as janitor, Children’s Pastors, Youth Pastors, Mission Pastors, and Associate Pastors. We felt the call from God to go to the nations in 1989 when we founded Oasis International Ministries. We did short-term mission trips in Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Singapore, Uganda, Kenya, China, Brazil, India, and Canada from 1989 to 2005.
During that time, we built 5 churches in Indonesia, an orphanage in Uganda, ministered in the underground church in China, taught in Bible Schools, leadership training for pastors, did marriage counseling, vacation Bible schools, lead mission teams.
We know what it is like to be in foreign countries and feel afraid, lonely, and needing help with food, transportation, housing, money and understand new cultures and new governments.
In between my foreign mission trips in the year 2000 I learned that there were refugees in St. Louis.
I visited an Ethiopian family. I went into their apartment and found that there was no furniture. Just bare hardwood floors in the living room, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom. In the bedroom, I found 1 blanket on the floor for 4 people in the family. I asked, “How long have you been living here?” They said, “6 months.” I was overcome with emotion and said to myself, “No way this is happening here!” I felt like I had to do something. I joined other like-minded men in the city and began serving refugees in between my short-term mission trips.
In 2005 I was in Sumatra, Indonesia helping with the tsunami on Nias island and Banda Ache on a two-week mission trip. I came back to the United States with dengue fever, otherwise known as “Bone Breaker Fever”. Since this disease has no preventive shot or any treatment, and if you get it again, it will come back 10 times worse. And the doctors told us that dengue was in all of the countries I was going.
It would be very dangerous for me to go to other countries because of dengue. Even though I was still willing to go to these other countries, my wife and I prayed and we felt the Lord saying to us that He was bringing the nations to St. Louis and saying it was time to stay home and serve refugees in St. Louis full time.
In November 2006 we bought a used U-Haul truck and asked all of our friends to give us their furniture they were not using. They began to do it and we would go to apartment complexes and hand out furniture to new refugees. It wasn’t very organized and we realized we needed a warehouse to sort the furniture and household items that people needed. Through miraculous intervention by God and our financial supporters, we put up our home for collateral, Joani and I purchased our building in South City St. Louis. We thought we were just going to use it as a warehouse because there were no walls in the upper 7,500 sq ft and 6,000 sq. ft. in the basement. We realized as we began to receive refugee families in our building, that they needed help with many services besides furniture. They needed clothing, English classes, citizenship classes, driver’s training, children’s tutoring, jobs, better housing, baby showers, but most importantly they needed friends.
Our focus was always trying to meet their physical needs in their new apartments. Because most of the refugees were coming from refugee camps (some were in refugee camps for 10, 15, and even 20 years), they came with almost nothing from their countries. They were afraid, lonely, leaving their families (some killed in the war), their friends, their jobs, their homes, and their country and way of life. Many did not speak English; many had never worked in a city before (they were farmers) and many never had to pay rent or utility bills. They also came with financial debt, because the U.S. government required them to pay back the airfare for coming to the U.S.
Our goal was to give every refugee family a whole house full of furniture for free, household items, and clothes to get started in this new country. It was a big goal, but with the help of many churches, individuals, some corporations, and foundations, we are meeting this goal. One very important thing we realized very quickly was that every refugee family needed friends to help them navigate this new life and new country. Because we are still Christian pastors, we want to include with everything we do, the love of Jesus. We say at Oasis International, “All Jesus All The Time!” We are not here to force our religion on anyone but to show everyone the genuine love of Jesus. In addition to the things we could give them, we wanted to give them American friends. We started a new ministry out of Oasis International called Good Neighbor. We try to connect every refugee family with an American family. We realized this was creating a sense of peace and healing from their struggles with emotional trauma and loss as their American friend would help answer questions our refugee friends would have.
Since we bought our building in 2006, we have helped thousands of refugees from over 50 countries. Many of the refugees volunteer at Oasis International and help other new arrivals with interpreting, moving furniture, donating their furniture and clothing, pr0viding baby showers for new moms, helping with citizenship and English classes, and getting to know St. Louis. Now we collaborate with many other refugee organizations to facilitate a welcoming American community to the new arrivals from many countries.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There are always struggles when you attempt to do something you have never done before. We never owned a building before. We didn’t know about plumbing, heating and cooling, insurance, how to pay a big mortgage. All along the way, we’re raising our support. That meant we had no visible means of support. So, we also had to send out newsletters every month to tell people what we were doing. We were speaking in different churches and leaders to ask for financial help and volunteers, as well as, more furniture, household items, and clothing. We didn’t know any of the legal liabilities and paperwork that needed to be filed with the city, state, and federal governments. We didn’t realize the cost of maintaining a used box truck. And we didn’t realize the differences in the different cultures from the different countries the refugees were coming from. We didn’t realize the emotional state many of them were in from post-traumatic stress. We were constantly learning and are still learning how to love and care for people who are broken physically (some still have bullets and shrapnel in their bodies) and emotionally. We were recently made aware of the many women who have had miscarriages the first week of their arrival in St. Louis and some with many miscarriages they had to endure.
Starting a new ministry is always a challenge when the cash flow sometimes is not flowing. It has taken a lot of faith and prayer to trust the Lord for provision for hiring staff, paying bills for ourselves as well as the refugee families. God has been there every step of the way. We have seen many miracles of financial provision and physical healings in the refugees we have prayed for. We have had to learn how to navigate deaths in different cultures, injustices in our own courts, and bigotry from our own countrymen. There have been many struggles but every struggle has made us grow in faith, understanding, and love.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Our mission is to love and care for those seeking refuge from war-torn countries with the heart of Jesus. We try to provide furniture, household items, and clothing, English classes, citizenship classes, assist with job applications, assist with government forms that have to be filled out in a timely manner, find better housing, assist with paying rent and utilities, organize baby showers, provide a community BBQ once a month for refugees and Americans to get together. provide cars and vans for families at no cost. Most of all we try to provide a sense of family and love when everyone comes to Oasis International. We want our volunteers to highly value and honor every person that enters our building with the love of Jesus. He sacrificed his life for everyone and so we try our best to love with His love.
When we were in the middle of doing a strategic plan for Oasis International our person, we hired to do it interviewed all of our staff. He asked, “What sets you apart from other refugee organizations in St. Louis?” Our Iraqi driver of our box truck who picks up furniture and delivers furniture said, “Sir, We give the Love, We give the love!” He is a Muslim man whom we love. We are the most proud of having a reputation in our community of loving everyone the same, no matter where people have come from, no matter what their beliefs are, no matter the color of their skin. Many refugees call me dad and Joani mom. We want people to feel like they have a family they can trust and rely on.
One Burmese family came with no English. They came to our English classes, got a job, went to school, opened 5 Sushi businesses, bought their home (paid off), bought cars (paid off), went back to Burma, and bought their Burmese father a car, bought an apartment in Burma. They came back to St. Louis and came to see Joani and I. They said, “You are our American father and mother. Someday we want to take you back to Burma to meet our Burmese mothers and fathers.
We have helped two Iraqi families with the burial of their family members and sent their bodies back to Iraq. The Muslim community came to us for one of the Iraqi young men who died in a car crash. They asked us to take care of the body and send it back to Iraq. We were honored to do it.
One Liberian man we have known for 14 years died of covid last year. We paid for the funeral arrangements, the cost of the cemetery plot, and officiated the funeral service. Two years before he died, we paid for him to go back to Africa to see his wife and his other children still in Africa that he hadn’t seen in 12 years. We don’t always have money to do these things but the Lord provides through our newsletters and Facebook posts.
Can you tell us more about what you were like growing up?
I was the youngest of 9 children from a combined family. My mother died when I was 5 and then the youngest of 5 children. My father remarried when I was 8, then I became the youngest of 9 children. I was shy and the shortest in my class from grade school through high school. I was insecure and afraid most of the time. My dad died when I was 23-year-old, 2 months before I was married. Joani’s dad was killed in a car accident while we were on a date when she was 16 and I was 17 I struggled with college, went 4 years without a degree. Worked as a dispatcher for a trucking company for 14 years. I had anger issues from the loss of my mom and dad. I also had fear issues feeling like I didn’t know what to do or how to do a lot of things because of no dads to talk to. Then my sisters told us about a personal relationship with Jesus. After many discussions about God and Jesus (some heated and questioning), I had an encounter with Jesus early one morning. I began to read the Bible on my own and received Jesus as my personal Savior. After a year or so, Joani also had a personal encounter with Jesus. Joani got her degree in Education and got a job teaching. We began to change our lives from being selfish to wanting to help people. We attended church and we began to serve wherever we could on our days off.
A couple of years after I gave my life to Jesus, our pastor asked me to come on staff. I started out as the janitor, they trained me to be a Children’s Pastor, then Youth Pastor, and then Associate Pastor and Christian Counselor. My heart was always to help people in any way I could with the help of the Bible, prayer, and the Lord. I never dreamed I would be the founder of a ministry and travel all around the world or be helping refugees in my home city.
- Email: email@example.com
- Website: www.oasis4refugees.org
- Facebook: Oasis International Ministries