Chase and Robbie Vanderveen chose downward mobility in order to love their (literal) neighbors
When Chase Vanderveen turned on the faucet in the kitchen of her cramped, run-down apartment and no water came out, she saw an opportunity.
Chase and her husband, Robbie, were less than a week into living in a northeast Omaha apartment complex—notorious for its nearly unlivable conditions and large number of refugee tenants—when it happened. They had already caught and squished two bed bugs and spotted multiple cockroaches and mice when the water stopped flowing. But instead of feeling discouraged, Chase saw an ‘in’ to meet her Karen neighbors.
“I was like, ‘Oh, praise God that there’s no running water! That means I can go to the grocery store and pick up those huge five-gallon things of water and I’ll go around door-to-door and ask my neighbors if they need water!’” she says.
Chase, bubbly and affable, filled up her back seat with jug after jug of water and set out to make some friends. She filled up toilet tanks and helped families flush, and filled up pots and pans so the moms could cook noodles and rice. They thanked her in broken English as she left and, flashing a wide grin, reminding them that her name is Chase, and she’s in apartment 16.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the Vanderveens don’t live a ‘typical’ American life of upward mobility. And thanks to their radical obedience and faith in a God who breaks down societal barriers, they just might have more Karen friends than American.
Called to Stay Put
Chase and Robbie—both life-long believers—met at a Halloween bonfire in 2012, fell in love, and were married by 2014. Robbie worked as a civil engineer in Omaha, and Chase ran her own wedding photography business. By all the standards, they seemed to be typical newlyweds.
But then, they felt God’s Spirit beckoning them in a different direction.
It didn’t make any sense, and they knew it, but each of them had an undeniable feeling that the Lord was telling them to go out and see the world. Not for missions, not for education, but just to experience it.
In August 2017, Robbie took a sabbatical from work and Chase cut off all wedding bookings for the fall, and they set out. Over the next four months the young couple would visit 17 countries, starting in Scandinavia and ending in eastern Asia, specifically in Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan.
Even though their months-long quest had some selfish motivations, Chase says, they never forgot about God along the way. It was their belief that God would, at some point, show them why he had invited them to drop everything and travel. In Chase’s mind, she figured the end of the trip would bring a strong conviction to become overseas missionaries.
“The thought was that nothing was going to hold us back to saying ‘yes’ to whatever (God’s calling) was, even if it meant moving to Timbuktu,” Chase says.
As their weeks of travel came to an end, Chase and Robbie had grown in their affection both for the Lord and each other. At the same time, though, they felt disappointed—they had no word from God about where to go next.
So, they came back to the States with no job, no housing, and no plans.
“We returned having no clue what to do, and feeling like, ‘God, I told you I would go anywhere, any day, even if it was the Middle East! Why didn’t you make that clear?’” Chase says.
While Chase’s heart was set on moving across the globe, Robbie remembers feeling relief upon returning to the States without a clear calling to missions.
“Right before we left, I remember Chase saying, “We’re just going to fall in love with a spot and we’re going to stay there,’ and in my mind I was like…‘I don’t want to do that,’” Robbie says. “[I said,] ‘You know Chase, if we aren’t missionaries we could always move back here and into the refugee apartment complex.’”
The Vanderveens sat down and talked about what to do in order to have the most impact in Omaha while they were there, until God made it clear otherwise.
Robbie revisited the idea of moving into the refugee apartment complex, which they knew about because of prior experience teaching English as a Second Language classes to Karen refugees. (The Karen people are an ethnic minority from Myanmar who fled their country due to religious and ethnic persecution.)
Chase, though, wasn’t completely sold on the idea of moving in—she suggested buying a house across the street and visiting often, rather than committing to live in the complex.
“Robbie reminded me at the time, ‘Moving in down the street is just a halfhearted yes, it might as well be a no,’” Chase says. “Following Jesus isn’t easy, and this points to his goodness because, yes we had obedience, but it wasn’t joyful obedience. So he took and trained that simple ‘yes’ into the most radical, beautiful decision of our lives.”
Before the couple even moved in, they hit multiple roadblocks. Staff were unresponsive to the Vanderveen’s request for tours. By the time they finally nailed down a time to visit, the staff member showed up more than two hours late.
“It would have been so easy for us to tell our friends and family who knew we were thinking about this ‘Yeah, I mean the staff just wouldn’t respond.’ We could have just told people we tried and it just didn’t work out and we could have moved on with our lives, but because we felt like God was really asking us to do this, we kept on putting in the effort to make it happen.”
And eventually it did.
“Jesus took and trained that simple ‘yes’ into the most radical, beautiful decision of our lives.”
The Ministry of Showing Up
In January of 2018, the Vanderveens took all of their furniture out of storage and moved into apartment 16. Robbie went back to work at his old firm, but Chase had a rougher transition. While in the last leg of their travels in Southeast Asia she developed an intestinal disorder, and was still reeling from months of stomach pain. In Chase’s own words, she was depressed.
“I remember having a conversation with Chase one night saying, ‘I know things are really low right now but this is what we committed to and if you’re not going to be happy and we’re not going to make this work, we can break the lease and move out,’” Robbie says.
“That changed everything for me,” Chase says. “When Robbie gave me the option to move out I realized that I was wallowing in my own self pity.
I was just feeling that I had this dream that we were gonna be missionaries somewhere and I went overseas for God, but God just slapped me in the face like, ‘You are right here in your mission field! This is where I’ve planted you, I’ve put you here for a purpose and for this season.’”
The next day they went to a coffee shop and mapped out short-term and long-term goals: by February, they’d overcome the language barrier and learn two of their neighbor’s names. By April, they’d have a family in their complex over for dinner. By May, they’d set up an organized soccer game with the many kids in the apartment. By September, Chase would teach English in her living room to one woman.
With their goals of discipleship, though, the Vanderveens never wanted to objectify their new neighbors and treat them as people to convert. First and foremost, they wanted a relationship. Sitting above their smaller, incremental goals was a far more important one:
“The only real goal that we had with all those little goals was that they would know Jesus,” Chase says. “They are not our service projects, they are our family.”
While goals gave them something concrete to strive for, underlying fear still remained.
“I was terrified of the language barrier, terrified of failure, terrified of my neighbor thinking I was weird, terrified of my American friends thinking I was weird for living here and not wanting to visit me in kind of a gross apartment,” Chase says. “But those fears were just total lies from the enemy because God continually presented opportunity after opportunity to meet him and to love my neighbors.”
After Chase introduced herself to her neighbors during the water incident, she noticed that every afternoon, all the moms in the complex would congregate in the courtyard and walk to the local elementary school to pick up their kids together. Within a week, Chase had worked up the nerve to join them, not speaking a lick of Karen, and spent a half-hour walking to and from school with them. For her neighbors’ part, the only thing they knew about Chase was that she’d filled up their pots and toilets one week prior.
Two more weeks of mostly wordless walks to and from school went by until Chase saw that the women were finally starting to feel comfortable with her, and they began to speak to her in broken English. Within three weeks, she had established her first impromptu English class, checking off her eight-month goal in less than one month.
Through the months—and through the bedbugs, leaky ceilings, and temperamental AC units—Chase and Robbie spent extensive time getting to know their neighbors, which included both Americans and those who arrived to the United States under refugee status. Relationships grew stronger, and a foundation of trust was built through hours of cooking meals together, talking in each other’s living rooms, and playing soccer, basketball, frisbee with the kids.
When Chase and Robbie think about Scripture, they see a God whose actions would make most privileged Americans uncomfortable. Jesus touched the unclean, dined with tax collectors, spent time with the poor, dearly loved the vulnerable, and himself was born a refugee. His life was lived in a radical manner that many people today would reject outright or at least judge from afar.
“Scripture is littered with the invitation to love, and then love some more, and then when you’re exhausted from carrying the burden of fully accepting and loving people in their mess, love them some more,” Chase says. “God invites us into this because He knew it was the only way to truly experience life in abundance. It is the only way we will ever get a foretaste of Heaven before this life passes.”
Trudging Through the Waters
When they’re not working, the Vanderveens spend virtually every waking moment with their neighbors. Whether they are teaching someone to drive, giving swimming lessons, playing hacky sack or video games, or watching scary movies, it’s all done together. They cook, they have Nerf Gun fights, and try out all kinds of new experiences like camping and hiking.
“These people are our family,” Chase says. “We do everything together. They come to church with us every Sunday, we do Bible study one night a week, they’re growing and we’re growing up with them. We go to soccer games, we go to their school plays, whatever it is we do it with them.”
Above all else, Chase and Robbie walk alongside their neighbors on their spiritual journeys. Coming from a largely Buddhist and animist culture, their Karen neighbors ask the Vanderveens a host of challenging questions that have grown Chase and Robbie’s own faith. Most of their neighbors were exposed to Christianity prior to arriving at the complex, so Robbie and Chase have been able to build on an existing Christian foundation and help grow their faith even deeper.
“Scripture is littered with the invitation to love, and then love some more, and then when you’re exhausted from carrying the burden of fully accepting and loving people in their mess, love them some more.”
“When things are hard, we pray together. When things are good, we pray together,” Chase says. “Everything is a reminder that we need to be focusing on Jesus.”
One of the most encouraging things for the Vanderveens throughout this year-and-a-half has been seeing their church community embrace their neighbors.
“It’s been remarkable watching all of our different friends show up,” Robbie says. “The kids know so many names of friends who have done things for them, whether it’s finding someone a ride to the doctor’s appointment or pulling someone’s car out of the ice or playing basketball. Our friends and our church friends have really come through for us.”
Each time a friend from church offered to make a meal for their Bible study, joined a pickup soccer game, or helped them with apartment repairs, Chase says they experienced the love of God through their generosity. “We get to experience more of Jesus through friends; it’s Jesus in them that we are experiencing.”
Committing to this apartment complex and to their neighbors has also stretched and grown their marriage.
“Through the sacrifice, through our trudging through the waters together, our friendship in our marriage has grown much stronger,” Chase says. “We support one another and we’re just more in love with Jesus.”
It has been nearly two years of learning healthy boundaries, learning when to take time away and find privacy, and finding healthier rhythms. Through the months Chase and Robbie have found more clarity about what it looks like to work as a team to seek God’s will and to build toward his Kingdom, while also being mindful about protecting their marriage and time alone.
“We are not God, and stretching ourselves to the point where we are only giving our neighbors the most exhausted versions of ourselves isn’t helping anyone,” she says. “Instead it lifts Jesus’s name higher when we say, ‘Yeah I can’t do that today, but you know who always has time for you, who always loves you, who will always be there for you, that’s Jesus.’”
Hope Dwells in Omaha
Through living alongside their Karen friends and neighbors, the Vanderveens saw a massive gap in refugee aid in America: homeownership education. To address this need, they founded two organizations: Yellow Door and Hope Dwells.
Hope Dwells, a nonprofit, will build homeownership literacy by offering classes on home ownership, financial management, and home maintenance. The goal is to reach refugees who are new to the American housing system and teach them how to prepare themselves for owning a home. Although the curriculum is still in the works, the Vanderveens hope to launch within a month or so.
Yellow Door is the for-profit sibling of Hope Dwells, and its mission is to help those who want to move out of the refugee apartments and own their own home someday, but aren’t in a financial position to do so. Yellow Door purchases homes, fixes them up, and then rents these homes to refugees at an affordable rate so that they can rent to own in a matter of years. Two houses have been purchased in the same neighborhood in order to keep the community together as much as possible. As of September 1, the first of their families have moved out of the apartments and into a home. Someday, Chase and Robbie hope to join them.
“When we started Yellow Door, the goal was to be in the same community as the neighborhood we’d buy these houses in so that whatever refugee family we would rent to, we’d continue to help them navigate,” Robbie says. “The goal was to get five families out of these apartments, and then whenever that was done Chase and I would move into the neighborhood.”
While it may be their hope to join their families and live alongside them again sometime soon, Chase says she and Robbie are approaching their future completely open handed, ready to obey whatever God may call them to.
“I always say that I don’t have a long-term goal or a five-year plan, because if you follow Jesus radically you can’t have a five-year plan,” she says. “You have to be open to all the ways that God is going to totally shift that plan. If you would have asked me what my dream was a couple of years ago, this was not it.
“But here I am now and in my mind, I am living my dream that I never knew I had—and it’s not in any way, shape or form what anyone would call the dream, living in a cockroach-infested apartment.”
To the Vanderveens, embodying the love of God is simple: meet each other in your mess, in your shared brokenness. Gather at a table often, and talk about the things that hurt, that satisfy, that bring joy and peace. And then walk through these things together.
“I don’t think God called us on this journey any more than he called everyone on it,” Chase said. “He’s asking for your life. So give it away and get way more in return than you ever expected.”
Photos by Chase Vanderveen and Daniel Muller.