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Roxane B. Salonen, Published October 18 2013

Welding hope: Program helps fuse possibilities for former refugees, parolees

Fargo -- It’s a four-hour commitment two nights a week, but Abdalla Soni arrives regularly with a smile, helmet and backpack filled with welding equipment.

He doesn’t need to be here. Soni already graduated from the Hope Skills Training Center, a faith-based program that introduces welding and Jesus to refugees and parolees wanting skills and a fresh start. But, he says, there’s always more to learn and he enjoys hanging out with the guys.

This week, he’s working on a special project – fusing together two metal bars to create standing table-top crosses for an upcoming fundraiser.

“Just two years ago, he was building houses out of sticks, wire and plastic in a refugee camp,” says Mark Wagner, one of the center’s founders and volunteer instructors. “Now, he’s building for the Lord.”

Dave Nerud, another volunteer instructor, says the idea of helping those who need a boost after spending time in the legal system or struggling as refugees was a bit of a no-brainer.

“My father was a career welder and a foreman, and he was always welding around the house so I grew up watching him,” he says. “He bought me my first welder as a Christmas gift.”

Nerud’s been impressed by the eagerness of the students at the center.

“It’s not only about learning a marketable skill but also a personal challenge that they accept willingly, knowing it’s not going to be easy,” he says.

He especially enjoys seeing faith fused into their learning.

“They’ve got a wonderful thing going here, integrating God’s word into this and applying it to each individual’s personal history,” he says.

From Africa to here

Richard Irish, another of the center’s founders and mentor to Wagner, says the endeavor falls under the Master’s Heart nonprofit organization he started in India many years ago. Eventually, that brought him and Wagner to Africa, where they set up a welding school in a “very desperate area” in the mountains – a place where about 90 percent of the population is HIV-positive.

The response was tremendous, and when they returned home with some extra cash, they wondered whether they could do something similar right here in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“A lot of people who come with us to Africa, when they get back they feel disturbed by what they’ve seen,” Irish says. “We tell them they don’t have to go to Africa to find people that are lying in the ditch, sometimes because of bad decisions or bad situations. There are a lot of people in this country that really struggle and you can make a difference in a lot of lives right here.”

The program involves three components, he says.

First, trainees learn about the Christian faith. Next they learn safety, which involves a detailed course and written test, and then actual welding techniques.

“We start every class with a devotion, and after a few training sessions, you’ll see the guys start opening up a little bit,” Irish says. “The evenings always end up with a prayer time for them, their friends and family.”

Women welcome

So far, no women have gone through the program, though one female applied before backing out due to a conflict. But both Wagner and Irish agree it would be nice to have some female students join on.

“Believe it or not, my Grammy Lucille Willis was a ship welder over there by the Great Lakes years ago,” Wagner says. “Women make good welders. … They often have a very steady hand which creates very smooth welds.”

Aside from his maternal grandmother’s inspiration, Wagner grew up learning from his uncle on his father’s side.

“We had a very humble beginning where we grew up,” he says. “We were probably one of the poorest families in the county, and then my uncle started welding and ended up as vice president of engineering at Bobcat.”

Melding welding, faith

Though Wagner has a day job in the insurance business, he says welding always seemed part of God’s plan for his life.

“I welded my way through college, and the neat thing is I accepted Jesus Christ when I was a welder going to South Dakota State University,” he says.

Irish says the instructors do not relay their beliefs in an insistent, aggressive manner. Rather, they just share from their own lived experiences.

“It’s God’s work, not ours,” Irish says. “If it were ours we would have totally screwed it up by now. We just want to be faithful to what he expects of us. We don’t tell people what they have to believe, we just say what we believe, and I’ve never had anyone offended by what I’ve shared.”

Besides, he adds, we should never be ashamed to share our faith. “When someone looks you in the eye and has no hope, I say, ‘The only hope I have is in what I believe.’ ”

In the end, both men agree that they cannot do any good in their ministry without God’s prompting.

“We always want to sense what God’s heart is for what he wants to do,” Irish says. “If you do that, he will bless it every time.”

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com