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Hosting students, mission trips, travel keep family attuned to diversity

Hosting Japanese students for a weekend homestay and other visits is one of several ways Karen and John Nelli live their commitment to global connections.

John and Karen Nelli
John and Karen Nelli

They also went on a two-week medical mission trip to Nicaragua in 2001, hosted a Chinese student for a year and housed a Bosnian refugee family of four for six weeks in 2000.

Karen, the children’s minister at Timberview Christian Fellowship in Mead, estimates that 60 percent of the 600-member Free Methodist church are involved in a local, downtown, national or global social or community ministry.

Many use a week of their vacation to do something for someone else or go on a mission trip.  Some do a spur-of-the-moment “pounding”—putting pounds of food in a box they leave anonymously on the doorstep of someone struggling economically.

The pastor, the Rev. Glenn Teal, is taking a mission team to China in March.  One couple helps refugees in India rebuild their lives.  Youth recently painted and fixed inner-city homes in Chicago.  One group plants fruit and other trees to counter deforestation in Ethiopia.

Locally, the church is involved in City Gate, New Hope Resources, Angel Tree, the Tree of Sharing and Coats for Kids.

“Faith without works is dead,” said Karen, who grew up with hobos sometimes joining her family for dinner.  “Why believe something if we are not willing to enact that belief in our lives.  Christian faith says we are to care for the poor, for widows and orphans, and for the downtrodden and disenfranchised.”

“These are the basic commands of the church,” John said.

“If we took them literally or took them to heart, caring for each other, we would need no welfare programs,” Karen said.

Cross-cultural experiences, John said, help people see others less as enemies or adversaries.  So the Nellis encourage other church members to host Japanese students at Mukogawa Institute.

John thinks people have begun to see that, despite differences, people share similar goals.

“Until the Soviet empire crumbled in the 1980s, we were indoctrinated to believe that Soviet people were hard-core Communists who opposed us,” he said.  “We now realize the people were trying to survive, just as we were.  They were not what their government was.  If we strip away governments, we can see how much alike we are as individuals.”

John wants to share God’s love with people who are hurting and teach them skills they need to live, produce food and improve their lives.

“No matter how we are different in culture, language, intelligence or mentality, we are similar in our desire to care for our children,” he continued.  It’s innate to want to make life better for our children.”

Growing up in Los Angeles— Karen in the Church of the Brethren and John in the Assembly of God Church—both experienced multi-cultural community as part of everyday life. 

Wanting their daughters Mandy and Hilary, who were three and six when they moved to Spokane 16 years ago, to be exposed to people of different cultures, the Nellis began hosting Mukogawa students and a few Whitworth international students.

“We wanted our daughters to be with people who did not think, speak, look or eat like us,” Karen said. “We wanted to meet people personally, staying in our home to learn about our culture and share their culture.”

Mukogawa invites host families and students to an orientation before the homestay weekend.  The commitment is for one weekend and commencement, but hosts can meet the girls other times, too.

At the orientation, the Nellis find the Japanese students self-conscious and speaking “chopped” English, but two weeks later when they come for the homestay, they are confident and ready to speak English.

Karen and John usually host two to three students for a weekend and invite them back for Thanksgiving.  The first weekend, they take students to church to join children in church school and sing songs with motions.

They usually serve pizza one meal, take the students to the mall, show movies at home, have them bake cookies and invite them to cook a Japanese meal.

“The day after Thanksgiving, the girls help us decorate our house for Christmas,” Karen said.  “By commencement, after 14 weeks of studying English, the students improve incredibly.”

While the Nellis first hosted students for their daughters, they continue to host because they enjoy it, said Karen, who earned a master’s degree in biology from the predominantly black California State University Dominguez Hills.

Her love of children grew while directing a YMCA camp on Catalina Island.  Her first job was with the YMCA and then as a junior high minister.

John, who has a master’s degree in psychology from Pepperdine, is a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center.  He began counseling youth through Teen Challenge to divert them from gangs.  He ran two businesses before he and Karen ran a nursing home for eight years.

Deciding to rear their children outside Los Angeles, they traveled the West and decided to settle in the Inland Northwest, first in Colbert and now in Mead. 

Since studying nursing at Spokane Community College, John has worked as an oncology nurse and is now in orthopedic nurse management.

The Nellis added to their international ties with vacations in the Dominican Republic, Belize, Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean.  They stayed in nice areas but visited poor sections, too. 

On the medical mission trip in Nicaragua they went into a community and interacted “with the most displaced people of the society.”  They stayed in a compound with a high cement wall with razor wire on top.  The housing was primitive, with water only limited times each day, Karen said.

In the six days they ran a clinic, John and another nurse saw 500 patients who had no other health care.  Without anesthesia, they took a tumor off a boy’s eye, a machete out of a woman’s stomach, and bullets out of children and adults.

Karen brought baseballs, thinking there would be bats.  Because there were no bats, one boy took a rotted board off his house to use.  Running down a hill with it, he fell and cut his leg on glass. Karen stitched it with a needle and thread she had.  The next day, the clinic gave him antibiotics.

Karen also extends her global ties on Thursdays when she tutors refugees from Burundi, Burma, Moldavia and other countries in English at the Institute of Extended Learning Center in Hillyard.

The Nelli’s daughters continue global interest and concern about “the least.” Mandy recently went on a 10-day mission trip to England and Hilary became an airline pilot to transport people to meet people in other cultures.

Karen, the daughter of a pastor who introduced her to caring for strangers, and John, whose father took food and supplies to missionaries when he traveled worldwide as an executive with Carnation, are glad to pass on their tradition of caring.

Karen recently organized Timberview’s children to go door-to-door to collect 65 coats and then to collect two large trash cans of small stuffed animals for a physician in the church to take with him to Cameroon.

“We involve children in our church so they gain a broad world view,” she said.  “Children today tend to be self-indulged.”

The commitment to outreach, Karen said, is a personal growing process in faith, because it goes against the culture that encourages people to accumulate for themselves the biggest, best and newest things.

Karen believes emphasis on service is vital to church growth, because it involves people in exciting activities.

“Spiritual growth for me,” said John, “is to look beyond the white, middle-class church and see that Christianity is viable and pertinent in any culture.  It’s about opening our eyes to the oneness of humanity.”

For information, call 953-0261.