A single announcement in church has helped change the lives of five refugees – and their hosts.
When the Rev. Gerlyn Henry was a curate at St. Timothy, North Toronto, she heard a parishioner speak about the housing crisis facing refugees in Toronto. Shelters in the city were often full, she heard, leaving the newcomers with no place to live. Many ended up on the sidewalk.
The speaker urged members of the congregation to open their home to a refugee if they had a spare room. Romero House, an agency that helps refugees in Toronto, would provide all the help necessary for this to happen.
Moved by the speaker’s words, Rev. Henry discussed the idea with her husband. They had just gotten married and had moved into a two-bedroom apartment. “We had a spare bedroom and very little furniture, so we thought, let’s do it,” she recalls. It was to be the beginning of a transformative experience.
They signed up to be an “emergency host,” providing a room for up to a week, until the guest found a place in a shelter. Romero House arranged all the details, and eventually a refugee from Iran arrived at their door after 18 months of travel.
“He didn’t speak much English and he slept for the first three days,” says Rev. Henry. “We barely saw him.”
Not long afterwards, Rev. Henry became the priest-in-charge of Holy Wisdom, a church in Toronto. The church came with a four-bedroom rectory, where she and her husband would live. Their guest from Iran hadn’t found a spot in a shelter yet, so they invited him to come live in the rectory with them.
With the larger space of a rectory, the couple began to wonder if they couldn’t help others as well. “I heard that the point of having four bedrooms in a rectory was originally to host bishops and priests when they were travelling, so we opened up our house a little bit more,” she says.
Five refugees now live in the rectory, along with Rev. Henry and her husband. There is a couple from Mexico and three single people, from Mexico and Iran. They range in age from 23 to 37.
At first, the parish found the arrangement a little peculiar. “There was a rumour going around – why does the priest live with five men?” recalls Rev. Henry. “Over and over, I had to address that, saying that this is part of the parish’s ministry. The point of the rectory is to host. In the case of our church, the priest is hosting people who need housing.”
She says the message has gotten through. “It’s been a year now and I think people understand that this isn’t just something we’re doing here on the church’s property – it’s a ministry of the church. We are hosting refugees and helping them acclimate to this world.”
Three of the guests are Christian and help out at church services. The other two help out where they can. Everyone in the rectory contributes to buying groceries, making meals and cleaning. They have become friends and socialize together, going rollerblading, walking the dog and other activities.
“In the beginning it was quite novel – providing breakfast and that sort of thing – but over time, we have come to just share the space,” says Rev. Henry. “We’re no longer hosting them. We just live together. It has become community living, where everyone has free access to food and cooking. There’s always an abundance of food, always an abundance of someone there to listen. I travel for work a lot, and I never come home to an empty house, which in some ways is a tremendous gift in the post-pandemic world.
“Of course, there are ups and downs with sharing a space with five people from different cultures,” she adds. “But with the crisis that is happening now with refugees sleeping on the streets for weeks and months at a time, it’s such a gift to be able to do this.”
She says the experience has deepened her faith. “Poverty is once removed, and to embrace that reminds us of who we are, that this is where our call as Christians began. It’s such a great reminder of the ministry of the Christian life and the strength it takes to walk with people who are just surviving.”
There is a scriptural imperative for Anglicans to respond, she says. “Our identity as Christians isn’t just what we believe but it’s how we live out what we believe, and to hear the call. I would encourage other priests who have four-bedroom rectories or parishioners who have spare bedrooms, to host people until they can stand on their own two feet.”
The need is urgent, she says, especially with winter coming on. “In Toronto we’re in a humanitarian crisis. People are on the streets without access to food and shelter, and some people don’t know where to go. If we don’t advocate or take action, they’ll be stuck in limbo without shelter, food and health care.”