As the tide of refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East grows, a church in Toronto is doing its part to help. St. Matthew, First Avenue, has been raising money and awareness in the parish in the hopes of sponsoring a refugee family from Syria.
“Jesus would do it immediately and would want his people to do it,” says the Rev. Ajit John, incumbent. “If we’re not going to do things like this, why do we even gather on Sundays?”
According to the United Nations, 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria and another 3 million have fled to neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. About 12 million people in total in the Middle East have been forced to leave their homes due to war, violence or persecution. Many of those have been Christian.
Two speakers in the diocese recently raised concerns about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The Rev. Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest from Syria who visited Toronto in October, said there is “no future” for Christians or any other religious minorities in the region as long as the warring factions continue to be armed. The Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White, nicknamed the Vicar of Baghdad for his ministry in the Iraqi capital, painted an equally grim picture, saying that thousands of Christians have fled Iraq while many others have been killed or forced to convert to Islam. Both speakers pointed out that Christians have been living in the Middle East for two millennia and that Syria and Iraq have been the settings for some of the most important events in the Bible.
Mr. John says his congregation had had a “burden on their hearts” for refugees, particularly Christians in the Middle East and north Africa, for the past three or four years. But it was the Syrian civil war that prompted them to take action.
Moved by the devastation, the church formed a small group (its name is Matthew 25:35) and invited a speaker from AURA to visit the congregation. AURA is a charitable organization that has been helping refugees settle in Canada for almost 30 years. It is funded by the diocese through FaithWorks and by the Toronto Conference of the United Church.
“They know the lay of the land and have done this before,” says Mr. John. “They work on a shoestring budget and they’re very committed. It’s inspiring to hear them talk. That was a really good connection to make.”
The congregation learned some sobering news. Hosting a refugee family would not be easy or inexpensive. To sponsor a father, mother and three children would require about $27,000 up front. “For a small, growing parish, it’s a stretch,” says Mr. John.
It would also take a lot of patience, they learned. It could be months or even years before the sponsored family arrived in Canada, and even then there would be no guarantee that the family would attend the church or stay connected to it. The congregation would have to find an apartment for them, take them to doctor’s appointments and manage dozens of other tasks to help them get settled.
Undaunted, the church decided to push ahead. Through craft and bake sales and other fundraising activities, the congregation expected to collect about $5,000 by the end of 2014. For Advent, they created special envelopes in which people could indicate gifts and pledges for the project.
They also contacted nearby churches, to see if they wanted to contribute funds. By Christmas, none had made a firm commitment. Mr. John, however, remains optimistic. “Personally, I think we’ll be able to do it alone,” he says. “I think God can do great things.”
He says the church’s efforts to sponsor a family have had an energizing effect on the congregation. It has deepened people’s understanding of the Gospel and strengthened their relationship with Jesus Christ, who became a refugee shortly after his birth, according to the Gospel of Matthew.
“It’s the sort of issue that brings people together tremendously,” he says. “They see the news clips of children being gassed and shot, and realize this is something they can do. It moves people beyond being silent observers. That’s turned out to be very energizing. We’ve noticed in the intercessions that people are praying for refugees and the homeless more often.”
The church plans to invite a speaker in January who has firsthand experience of the refugee camps in Syria, and other ideas are in the works. “There’s a lot of money to be raised, but I’ve heard all kinds of encouraging things from people who say there is nothing that God can’t do,” says Mr. John. “These are very encouraging signs. People are saying we can do it.”