Theology alumnus finds calling in refugee work in Europe and now U.S.

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A man in a knit hat, green shirt and gray zip-up jacket is shown in front of a lake and mountain in the Austrian Alps.
Will Cumbia in the Austrian Alps. Photo courtesy Will Cumbia

Helping others have a better life is both a passion and priority for Will Cumbia. He completed his Master of Divinity with a certificate in interfaith dialogue online at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in December, while living and working in Europe to change the world through other endeavors. 

On May 12, Cumbia participated in the Atlanta campus’s evening commencement and was presented with the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan graduate award. He’s now back in Virginia, where he is continuing his work with refugees. 

Cumbia, who is originally from the Fredericksburg, Virginia, area, earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from The College of William and Mary in 2016. As a student, he watched the unfolding of the 2015-16 European refugee crisis, during which the migrant population increased dramatically as people from Middle East and African countries fled war, ethnic conflict or economic hardship.

“A part of me wanted to be a part of the response in some way,” Cumbia said. “I’ve always felt kind of a calling to Virginia Baptist ministry and European Baptist ministry. Refugee work was the area that I happened to fall into. Hospitality has always been a huge gift and an emphasis of mine. I always wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome and at ease. It was this mix of all this different stuff, of hospitality, of wanting to work in Europe and wanting to be a part of good change in the world.”

Cumbia worked at The College of William and Mary’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries for a year before moving to Vienna, Austria, to work with a Baptist church for a year. That experience paved the way for broader Baptist refugee work in Vienna, where he lived for six years and eight months in total.

Cumbia was — and continues to be — devoted to helping people who have been marginalized by war and religious persecution, as well as LGBTQ+ people who have been ostracized by their communities. In Vienna, he supported Baptist churches as they welcomed displaced people from across the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Europe seeking safety and helped raise funds for relief efforts. 

A group of seven adults take a photo as a historic buildings loom on a mountain behind them in Sicily.
Will Cumbia, second from left, leads a team from Virginia visiting Baptist refugee projects in Sicily, Italy. Photo courtesy Will Cumbia

He served as the coordinator for migration issues for the European Baptist Federation, field coordinator for a partnership focused on refugee work with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and refugee integration leader with Project Gemeinde Baptist church. One of his primary focus areas was assisting Farsi-speaking refugees in Vienna. When the war broke out in Ukraine, he led the European Baptist Federation’s communication efforts as it assisted displaced persons. 

“It was a huge and quite impressive response to be a part of. We fundraised and distributed over 10 million euros to Ukrainian Baptists and Baptists from surrounding countries to respond to the war,” Cumbia said. “It was horrific to be a part of because of the circumstances, but it was incredible to be there to be able to support in a tangible way.” 

Amid this work in Europe, he took classes online through Mercer’s School of Theology. He also participated in a Mercer-sponsored study abroad trip to Morocco. 

“From high school, I had an inkling I would probably end up in seminary,” said Cumbia, whose great-grandfather on his mother’s side and grandfather on his father’s side were ministers. “I’m a legacy minister. I’m kind of staying in the family business by going into ministry.”

Cumbia assumed he would eventually come back to Virginia and study at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, but the institution closed, leaving him to ponder other options. While working the Baptist General Association of Virginia Partnership Missions table at a collegiate event, Cumbia was seated across from a table for Mercer’s School of Theology and learned about its offerings. He had also heard good things about the school from some of his peers at William and Mary. When the school began offering a fully online program, he enrolled.

“What has been incredible is I’ve gotten my master’s while doing incredible work in Europe and being based in Europe. They were so accommodating, so thoughtful,” Cumbia said. “They were so supportive of the work that I was doing that they were willing to make that work to encourage me along the way.”

He said the faculty and staff — especially Dr. Michelle Brooks Garber, director of academic success and assessment — “worked tirelessly” to ensure his educational needs were met even though he was in another part of the world. 

A group of six adults stand take a selfie in front of large, historic buildings in Morocco.
Will Cumbia, left, with participants and leaders from the Mercer study abroad trip in Morocco. Photo courtesy Will Cumbia

“I’m really grateful to the McAfee folks and Mercer for providing the opportunity to further my education and further myself in the process, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing,” he said. 

Now that he has moved back to Virginia, Cumbia is reacclimating to American life and preparing to begin a new job.

“It’s a huge transition. It’s a lot, emotionally,” he said. “In the most privileged of senses, I have been displaced myself. I left to go to another country. That’s how I connected so well with real refugees. But I’m coming back to my own community, and I had the privilege of saying goodbye on my own terms, of packing my belongings, of coming back to friends and family. I’m trying to absorb it all. I’m continuing to do refugee work here, and all of this is invaluable experience to be able to empathetically connect with others.”

He will be working with ReEstablish Richmond, which supports resettled refugees and immigrants. He will start out as the nonprofit’s volunteer engagement coordinator and then become the coordinator for interfaith community engagement, which he called his “dream job.” 

Cumbia said he will have the opportunity to work with a variety of faith communities in Richmond to help them be more informed on refugee issues. His certificate in interreligious dialogue from Mercer will fit this role perfectly, and he’ll apply his pastoral skills to the projects he tackles.

He hopes to one day return to Europe and do refugee work in southern Italy. Teaching and a Ph.D. may also be in his future. 

“Regardless of what I do, I will always be a pastor. I can’t really escape it. It is who I am. No matter what I do, I will take that with me,” he said.

A photo showing a group of theology graduates in black robes and caps and white stoles with gold crosses are shown during commencement. The man in the middle claps and smiles.
Will Cumbia is shown at Mercer commencement in Atlanta in May 2024. Mercer University photo

 

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