How Mennonite Brethren churches are responding to the refugee crisis
It became personal.
In September 2015, a photo of a young child from Syria washed up on a beach “was everywhere – in the newspaper, on Facebook, on TV,” says Travis Barbour, associate pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C. “[My wife] Whitney and I felt righteous anger; we have a child about the same age, so it really struck us at the core of who we are.
“We decided that we wanted to do our part.”
As Christians, what is our part?
“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).
Scripture instructs us to care for those in need. Sometimes the heart just needs some convincing.
Enter Mennonite Brethren churches
Syria dominates the headlines, and it is currently the number one source of refugees in the world (3.87 million), yet there are many other areas of the world that have been generating refugees for years, even decades.
As the crisis of displaced people trickled into our consciousness, Canadians in churches asked, what can we do? and turned to MCC. Though best known for its disaster relief around the world and its thrift stores in North America, the organization was founded to help displaced Mennonites from Russia, and refugee settlement continues to be a core ministry.
Over the years, often driven by their own stories of displacement, Mennonite Brethren have called on MCC’s expertise to make a home for refugees in Canada.
As crises demand response, Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C., has offered it: to a family from Indochina in the 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s. A year and a half ago, a young woman in the congregation spearheaded sponsorship of a single mother from Colombia, after hearing about the need for refugee sponsorship from Jennifer Mpungu at MCC B.C.
Barbour polled Neighbourhood Church’s receptivity to sponsorship and “received overwhelming support.” Mpungu introduced Barbour to other displaced populations and guided the congregation to a family from Eritrea. The multigenerational family who arrived in January – a grandmother, a young mother and her two daughters – mirrors the demographics of Neighbourhood’s support team.
Similarly, when Cedar Park Church, Ladner, B.C., approached Mpungu, she suggested they consider someone whose application was already in process. The group of 10 readily agreed to welcome a young couple from Burma. “We just wanted to help,” says Colleen Sawatsky. When they took the proposal to the church, “everybody was for it.” This wasn’t Cedar Park’s first sponsorship either: they also welcomed a family from Vietnam in the 1980s, and walked with the mother and her children as they worked for years to reunite with their husband and father. (Read more here.)
“There’s a time and a place for committees, but if somebody needs food and shelter…sometimes you just need to sign on and then figure it out,” says Jennifer Spencer, a member from Eastview Community Church, Winnipeg. For the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, the famous photo struck close to home. She formed a Group of Five sponsorship with her extended family. The decision-making wheels at the church also began to turn, and the congregation came alongside with relational and logistical support and embarked on two sponsorships of their own.
In 2014, a few members at Westwood Church, Prince George, B.C., asked pastor Mark Wessner, what can we do about the dire situation in Syria? and started to explore sponsorship options. They ended up working with MCC to bring two families from Syria through private sponsorship, and they hope to bring another family soon.
“God is moving people all over the world – often from difficult places where they are suffering much injustice and fear,” says Tori Braun, missions administrative assistant at Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon. As they appear in Saskatoon, “this is an opportunity for us to serve others in need, practically and through relationship showing them the love of Christ.”
“We have a shared responsibility to love people who are displaced,” says Marlene Gallant of The Westside Gathering, Montreal. Equipped with games and crafts for children aged two months–14 years, small groups from the congregation have visited the hotels temporarily hosting refugees in transit. They also bring hygiene kits and hand-knitted winter caps and mitts – and encouragement. “It just seemed a simple gesture to take a step toward connecting with these new Canadians,” Gallant says.
“We felt we needed to do something,” says Doris Cober of Grace MB Church in Kitchener, Ont., after hearing an Orthodox bishop from Syria speak at an MCC-sponsored event in March 2015. By fall, they’d agreed to sponsor a refugee, though at press time, they were still waiting in welcome.
It’s no small amount to fund a family for one year. MCC lists the estimated annual settlement cost at $12,600 for one person, $21,200 for two, $32,500 for family of six and $2,500 for every additional member after that. But Mennonite Brethren churches haven’t run into a fundraising slump.
“We were blown away by how much support we received,” says Barbour. After Neighbourhood posted their initiative outside the building, “random people walk[ed] in to give significant amounts of money. People who want nothing to do with church were writing cheques or donating online,” says Barbour.
It took barely a month for Cedar Park to raise the money they needed. “People were very generous – even donating a couch right out of their family room” – and they continue to ask what is needed, says Sawatsky.
With only one major fundraising push – Cober and her grandsons did a Ride for Refuge cyclathon – and ongoing gifts, Grace MB exceeded the recommended amount for one year of support.
“The church has given a lot; the community has given an awful lot,” says Wessner. Westwood has received sizeable amounts from people who say, We’re not religious, but we believe in what you’re doing. Material gifts have also poured in, to the extent that Westwood has diverted some to other ministries in greater need.
The funds Sardis raised provided for the one-year commitment – and beyond, until their Colombian friend secured another stream of income. Now they continue to support her financially as particular needs arise.
The church is always looking for opportunities to serve, says Wessner, “but sometimes something new that happens causes us to ask the question with a little more earnestness.”
At Westwood, the joy of welcoming two families has “demystified what it means to have a relationship with someone from another culture,” says Wessner. From there, “it’s not hard to say maybe I can relate in other contexts.” Others have said, it’s opening my eyes to other needs in Prince George.
At Cedar Park, the sponsorship has opened up new relationships within the Ladner community. One Cedar Park member’s neighbour who is originally from Burma was so moved that the church would support persecuted peoples in her country that she and her husband decided to get involved. Sawatsky says she’s been “an angel,” helping translate as the couple settles in, and providing friendship and support as they learn to live in an industrialized Western context after spending their whole life in a refugee camp of 60,000 people.
A few months earlier, another church in town sponsored a couple from the same camp who live in the same apartment building. “It’s amazing how God works these things out – more than a coincidence,” says Sawatsky.
“This is a very unique opportunity for the church to be the church and to communicate what Jesus is all about in a very practical way,” says Barbour. He invited men from an addictions recovery group to get involved in the process of preparing the house, painting, plumbing. “It was cool to see them – brand new to faith – helping out, moving forward,” he says.
Braun has been “very encouraged to see the willingness, excitement and adventurous attitudes of our current resettlement groups.” People of all ages and backgrounds have joined the teams, some with little or no experience with newcomers, yet “they have been willing to jump right in no matter what the needs are,” says Braun. Forest Grove is awaiting two more families.
“People are behind us wholeheartedly,” says Sawatsky. The young couple Cedar Park sponsored are Karen people from Burma via Thailand – an area the church is already familiar with: they support Dave and Louise Sinclair Peters whose church planting work in Thailand brings them in contact with Thai, Burmese and Karen people.
For many congregation members, time is limited, particularly for the challenges of muddling through language-learning conversation, but they help out as they can. A church member flagged Sawatsky down in the street to ask about the couple: “Her small group had just been praying for them.”
“We couldn’t have done this without the church,” says Spencer. Eastview’s offers of financial and material help have been so welcome, but “time is even better,” she says. “I encourage people to not wait for [the refugee family] to call you; call them. Take the time to reach out.”
As Grace MB started on the process of sponsorship, Cober felt it was important to know what they were getting into. The congregation invited a neighbouring Lutheran church, who had done several sponsorships, to teach in the adult education classes, presenting both the joys and the hardships of refugee sponsorships. A friend of the church – a person of Kurdish background originally from Iraq, who has become a Christian – shared honestly from their experience.
These sessions helped the congregation understand their commitment, assuaged some fears and built excitement, despite the frank presentation about challenges.
Sawatsky dedicated herself to learning about refugees and sponsorship. Organizations like Vancouver’s Immigrant Support Services provided helpful training and resourcing, and she found information about the couple’s home country and the refugee camp they were coming from.
Steinbach MB dedicated a chunk of Sunday school hours to learning about Islam before they welcomed their family from Eritrea. They brought in John Derksen for several intense sessions of teaching and question & answer, so the church would better understand the family they were about to welcome. (The Menno Simons College professor of conflict resolution studies and practitioner of interfaith dialogue has lived for more than a decade in the Middle East)
The MCC Ottawa Office chose refugees as the subject of their annual seminar for post-secondary students to learn about advocacy and to hear directly from people working in government. Given the polarizing rhetoric around settling refugees in Canada, Treena Newton was hesitant to go. She is finishing her BA through Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., while interning with MCC Saskatchewan. “I realized that educating is one of the most loving and neighbourly things we can do for those in our country who are afraid to become neighbours.”
The multi-faceted process of sponsorship not only has the result of awakening the church to its gifts and opportunities but connects the church to the community in new ways.
“I saw opportunity to demonstrate to the city what the Kingdom of God looks like,” says Barbour, who did interviews for newspapers, radio and a local TV station. As a result of the media attention, a Nanaimo resident who translates into the family’s second language has become part of Neighbourhood’s community through serving as a translator. “It’s been cool to watch how meaningful friendships can be formed across different faith convictions,” says Barbour.
In Ladner, Sawatzky is pleased to see connections with other local churches grow. “We trade tips and resource information on how to help our refugee families” with members of the United and Reformed churches who are also sponsors, she says.
“I underestimated how positive the community response would be,” says Wessner. “It’s encouraging when people who have nothing to do with church say that’s what a church should be doing.”
As a result of connections they made through the process, Westwood has entered into a new project with the local immigration society to that welcomes newcomers to town – whether from an hour away or around the world. Now the church is one of the local organizations new residents meet to help them connect with Prince George. As the church and the community become more multicultural, Wessner finds himself asking, “God, you’re expanding our church family; what are you stirring at Westwood?”
“It’s amazing to watch friendship that can transcend language,” says Barbour. “Our lives are enriched for having known [this family]. We have formed lifelong friendship, and I love them like my sister, aunt and nieces. I thank God every day that we were able to help.”
“This experience of faith in action has been good for our church,” says Sawatsky. “We felt Christ calling us to make a tangible difference, more than giving of our financial resources. We want to be a family to them,” – and that doesn’t end after a year.
“We try to control things so much,” says Spencer, but this requires faith. As her family stepped out to sponsor, she leaned on Matthew 6:26. Her family has expanded to include a new Syrian sister (already living in Winnipeg), brother and their parents. “They are in our hearts,” Spencer says. “There is no way this ends at one year.
More than a year after arriving, the woman Sardis sponsored “is simply part of the church family now,” says Vic Janzen.
“Learning and experiencing life from another’s perspective and culture is such an honour,” says Braun. In seeking God’s justice on behalf of others, the people of Forest Grove have learned that “people are more than news stories and headlines: they are people with real families, real dreams, real goals and much courage to overcome.”
The families Westwood sponsored, who are Christians, have already gotten involved in the ministries of the church: on a music team and in prayer ministry. No longer “the refugees,” the Syrian families are “part of Westwood like anybody else,” says Wessner. “Westwood has become their home and it feels like they’ve been here for a long time.”
“Helping our new friends was one of the most meaningful things I’ve done,” says Robert Stobbe of Lendrum MB Church, Edmonton. (See here for more on Lendrum.) “In a sense it is an ‘easy’ way to be a follower of Jesus. How fun is it to introduce someone to the beauty of winter in Edmonton: skating, sledding, ice castles, festivals!
“The time of ‘service’ now feels as if it has past,” says Stobbe, “with the result simply being a great addition to our family.”
— Karla Braun
How could God use the gifts and talents in my community to reach out to populations in need?
What learning opportunities could I pursue to serve better in the areas where God may be calling me?
What might God want to teach me about himself as father and reconciler as I develop relationships with people who have suffered?
“Hospitality and Hope: resources for worship, learning and action” An MCC package for World Refugee Day, June 20, 2016
Finding our Way: Immigrants, Refugees and Canadian Churches An interdenominational guide to action by The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration, a national and interdenominational research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
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