Journey to church goes through shelter

The Anglican
 on October 1, 2019

Refugees go ‘upstairs’ for worship, fellowship

Olatubosun (Ola) Olanipekun and Lewis Ngwamba Kabonde each arrived at St. Peter and St. Simon the Apostle, Toronto, via the side door. That is, their introduction to our congregation was through being residents of the 65-bed homeless shelter that occupies a portion of the church’s basement. They each emerged on a Sunday morning to join in worship and then remained for the fellowship of coffee hour.

As much as 40 per cent of the homeless shelters in Toronto are occupied by refugees, and Ola and Lewis fit that profile. Ola, who grew up in Nigeria, arrived on a chilly night in October 2017. At the processing station, he was offered a place to sleep at a shelter, but one look at it made him apprehensive and he said he would rather stay on the street. After a couple of phone calls, he was directed to St. Simon’s shelter, where he lived for the next two and a half months. He eventually found employment at a food company, preparing meals to be sent across the city.

Lewis was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. An artist and sportsman, he studied design and played football. After joining one of his brothers in the U.S. and coaching soccer at a school in North Carolina, he decided that Canada was where his future lay. In August 2018, he arrived at Pearson airport and applied for refugee status. The Red Cross processed him and sent him to an Ontario Service Centre, where officials picked up the phone and located a bed – at St. Simon’s shelter.

The crowded confines and mix of residents at the shelter were “a shock,” Lewis confesses, but he had few options. Come Sunday, when his fellow residents saw him put on a clean shirt and shine his shoes, they asked him where he was going. “Upstairs,” he answered, “to where you can hear organ music.” Three other young men – all refugees from Nigeria, Uganda and Mexico – joined him.

Lewis attended Roman Catholic schools in the Congo but claims to be non-denominational and just “happy in any church where Jesus is king.” It is a similar story for Ola, who attended an Anglican school in Nigeria. Once in Toronto and settled in the shelter, he says, “I was looking for a church, and then realized there was one right above my head.”

That, of course, was not the end of it. Less than a year later, Ola – now with his own apartment in the west end – continues to come back to St. Peter and St. Simon every Sunday, where he helps with the Sunday School. “The kids help me Canadianize my accent,” he says with a smile. His real reason for pitching in: “This is family. I want to give back. I’m happy I found this place.”

Lewis, who also no longer lives in the shelter, now nevertheless finds himself at the church pretty much every day. In April, just after he obtained his Canadian work permit, he was hired as St. Peter and St. Simon’s verger. The verger, of course, is a traditional role within an Anglican Church, working “for the order and upkeep of a house of worship, including the care of the church buildings, its furnishings, and sacred relics, preparations for liturgy, conduct of the laity, and grave-digging responsibilities.”

Lewis hasn’t had to dig any graves yet, but he opens the church on Sunday mornings as well as frequently through the week, oversees that everything is clean and ready for events, and attends to a hundred and one other chores.

They say God works in mysterious ways. The journeys of Ola and Lewis to find St. Peter and St. Simon – and us them – have surely been in that category of happy marvels.


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