Welcoming refugees – a picture of God’s kingdom

Relationships go deeper – with God and others – as members open homes and hearts

MCC photo

Hanan Talabeh’s family arrived as refugees from Syria this summer, they were met at the airport by Talebeh and her daughter Nada.  (photo courtesy of Hanan Talabeh)

When you follow God’s leading, he often “calls you to things you would never have imagined,” says Michelle Knowles. Members of Waterloo (Ont.) MB Church and Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon, have discovered a broader view on the world and journeyed farther in discipleship by supporting refugee families.

Director of global outreach (GO) at WMB, Knowles was plunged into a deportation crisis on her first day. She was informed a family the church had been supporting had their refugee claim denied. They would be deported in two weeks. Worse: the parents would be sent to two different Latin American countries based on place of birth, not enculturation.

“That began a huge adventure of finding ways to walk alongside them,” she says.

Knowles mobilized a prayer team and support, and worked with officials to bring the family back to Canada. “We were told it would be impossible,” she says, but “God did a miracle! We celebrated with them this year as they were granted permanent residency.”

She’s continuing to learn how to equip the congregation “to take those first steps into areas of discomfort and see Jesus in that.” She’s encouraged to see members “befriend people who are different from us and go deeper in those relationships and learn to take risks with Jesus in these areas of discomfort.”

“This is our life now”

Waeil Abdalla (5 years old), Waleed Abdalla (3 years old), Weam Abdalla (one year old), and Khadija Fikak. Members of Eritrean family sponsored by the Forest Grove Community church, Saskatoon, 2013. Rena Pearson and Idris Fikak.  Forest Grove worked with MCC to sponsor the Fikak family.

Waeil Abdalla (5 years old), Waleed Abdalla (3 years old), Weam Abdalla (one year old), and Khadija Fikak. Members of Eritrean family sponsored by the Forest Grove Community church, Saskatoon, 2013. Rena Pearson and Idris Fikak. Forest Grove worked with MCC to sponsor the Fikak family.

In Saskatoon, John Pearson had no idea what he was getting into. Recently retired, his wife Rena and their small group responded when Forest Grove asked people to aid a refugee family. John expected to help, then “go on with the rest of our lives, but it’s not like that.”

Two years later, the family’s children call them grandma and grandpa and the Pearsons see their friends nearly every day. “This is our life now,” says John. “These people have become family.”

The Pearsons have traversed the maze of bureaucracy and walked with the family through learning English, getting extensive dental work done, learning the bus system and the birth of a fourth child. “This practical way of being the ‘hands and feet of Jesus’ [to this Muslim family] has resulted in growing in dependence on him,” says Rena. “It has helped us boldly step out for Jesus.”

Windows to speak about Christ

Hanan Talabeh, right, is sponsoring her nephew, his two siblings and mother to come to Canada as refugees, fleeing the violence in Syria.   Photo courtesy of Hanan Talabeh

Hanan Talabeh, right, is sponsoring her nephew, his two siblings and mother to come to Canada as refugees, fleeing the violence in Syria.
Photo courtesy of Hanan Talabeh

Encouragement from members of their WMB small group catalyzed Mark and Kristen House open their home to refugees in transition who need a place to stay. After much prayer and consideration, they took in a mother and son from Colombia for one night and witnessed their joyous reunion with family members already established in Canada.

Answering God’s call means sacrificing personal space, paying higher utility and food bills and learning to communicate and navigate parenting norms across cultures.

The Houses have just said farewell to a two-month houseguest: a devout Muslim woman from Africa and her two children. Seeing “how my kids interacted with her kids,…instilling in [my two young sons] the hope and desire God has for us in doing this” was a huge highlight for Mark.

Kristen was blessed by having another adult around to help with babysitting, cooking and cleaning, but even more so by the opportunity to share the gospel using her gift of hospitality. The woman was flabbergasted by Kristen’s generosity in opening her home, “so that gave us a lot of windows to tell her ‘we do it because Christ called us to be like him and demonstrate hospitality to strangers just as we would to him.’

“It was easier for us to show the gospel that way than to try to crack the barriers between Islam [and Christianity],” she says.

Growing deeper in relationship

Build A Village, a community group in Altona, Man., provides settlement support for newcomers to Canada. Here, residents welcome a Palestinian family in a Manitoba winter.  MCC photo by Joanie Peters

Build A Village, a community group in Altona, Man., provides settlement support for newcomers to Canada. Here, residents welcome a Palestinian family in a Manitoba winter.
MCC photo by Joanie Peters

“What are the steps God asks us to take in obedience to him,” Knowles asks, “to grow with him in new ways and allow ourselves to be changed and impacted by the people he’s brought into our community?

“It’s tough to build really deep, meaningful relationships across language and cultural barriers,” says Knowles; “that’s an area God keeps pushing us into.”

For the Pearsons, expanding connections happened not only with the Eritrean family but also members of their own small group, whom they got to know in a different way as they addressed practical needs together.

Additionally, there’s a sizeable Eritrean community in Saskatoon who rallied around the new family and opened a new world for the Pearsons. “We have so many new friends from Eritrea. It’s great!” says Rena.

The Houses were also “heavily supported by our friends and church community,” says Kristen – and by new Canadians who rally around refugees from the same home country.

The challenges keep coming

John and Rena Pearsons's refugee family.

John and Rena Pearsons’s refugee family.

“The opulence we live in – it’s really been a revelation in the past few years,” says John. Befriending people who’ve lived nearly their entire lives in a refugee camp in Sudan “has been a reality check about what’s important in life.”

“You can’t be among some of the stories and experiences we’ve walked through and not realize there’s that next step to speak up on behalf of those who don’t have a voice,” says Knowles.

Her interaction with refugee claimants has nudged her to see advocacy as part of “what the fullness of the gospel looks like…and how we as individuals or as a church can speak to that.” She’s felt the call “to bring accountability to sins of injustice.”

As she sees more people from around the world coming to her doorstep in Kitchener-Waterloo, Knowles observes, “We can be excited about growing diversity but it doesn’t necessarily cost us something or require us to change.

“Ultimately, we need to get to that place of mutuality and shared service and investment in each other – not an “us” and “them,’” says Knowles.

“That’s what God calls us to because that’s what his kingdom looks like.”

—Karla Braun

Partners who helped WMB and Forest Grove with refugee settlement:

Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS) — Kitchener Waterloo

Welcome Home — Kitchener Waterloo

Mennonite Central Committee Ontario

Open Door Society — Saskatoon

Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan

A guide to action: Finding Our Way report

Guide To Action March 2015.compressedjpg_Page1Finding Our Way is “a comprehensive report that combines both extensive research and learning and also very practical tools and action steps for local church to engage,” says Michelle Knowles, director of global outreach (GO), Waterloo (Ont.) MB Church.

WMB has been supporting refugee claimants in Kitchener-Waterloo though the work of individual members and partnerships with Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support and Welcome Home, yet even with their experience, the guide contains more lessons and suggestions and provide valuable evaluation tools to improve and discern next steps, says Knowles.

“The other piece that gets me excited is that it could open so many more doors for a common language between churches and ministries for collaboration between groups,” says Knowles.

Finding our Way is a project of 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). The partnership, led by Rich Janzen and the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR) in Waterloo, Ont., includes academic researches, church leaders and interdenominational networks such as the Canadian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Partners completed a national survey of 38 denominations (Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), 18 key informant interviews with denominational and other leaders across Canada, and an extensive literature review. Local researchers in the Maritimes, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver also completed focus group interviews with church leaders and case studies of churches who offer exemplary immigrant support. More information about the project and its reports is available on the CCBR website.

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