Over the past two years, Anglicans across Canada have stepped up to sponsor hundreds of refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Many parishes across our diocese have sponsored families on their own, while some have partnered with other churches, community groups and neighbours. Not only have these efforts relieved the suffering of displaced people half a world away and given them a new home in Canada, but my sense is that they have reinvigorated and refocused the outreach ministries of parishes large and small. At the heart of this ministry is Jesus’ call for his disciples to engage in acts of love and mercy, including welcoming the stranger. (Matthew 25:35.)
One of the many joys of welcoming others is the opportunity to get to know people who are different. In the parish where I served for the past five years, welcoming a family into our midst gave us profound insights into a language, culture and religious tradition that was not our own. Not surprisingly, building the bridges of those new relationships over time reminded us how much we have in common, notwithstanding our perceived differences.
It is vital that this work of tearing down walls continues. Over the past few months, the world has witnessed an increase of suspicion and mistrust of “the other.” The proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico threatens the further separation of two peoples that, though divided by citizenship, are united in so many other ways. In a speech in Berlin 30 years ago, American President Ronald Reagan famously challenged his Russian counterpart, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But now, a new president is threatening to erect new walls with the aim of keeping people apart. The recent executive order to restrict entry into the U.S for people of seven Muslim-majority countries is another kind of wall. It paints entire nations and peoples with a single brush, and heightens a sense of xenophobia around the world. Even here in our own country, we were shocked and saddened by the murder of six Muslim men at a Quebec City mosque in late January. Again, a reminder of the walls that divide us.
In the face of such disheartening news, I have found consolation and encouragement in the response of people of faith. I have heard stories of churches in our diocese redoubling their efforts to sponsor more families, especially from the countries on the U.S. watch list. In early February, I was moved to see a group of Anglicans from St. Anne, Gladstone Avenue form a “ring of peace” outside a mosque in the west end of Toronto. With their Jewish brothers and sisters from a neighbouring synagogue, they stood in solidarity with Muslims to “express our common humanity.” A year ago, the people of St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough raised funds for a local mosque after arson destroyed their building.
As we begin the season of Lent once again this year, we are reminded of the walls in our own lives, and are asked to consider how we might allow God to tear them down. This year, what might we give up or take on that would help us remove those walls that we have constructed between ourselves and God, and ourselves and each other? How might we recommit ourselves to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ in a world that seems overcome by fear and division? How might we pattern our lives in accordance with the one who was lifted high on the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself? Well, going back to the basics of Lent is a good start. The invitation on Ash Wednesday is to observe a “holy Lent” by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and by reading and meditating on the word of God. (BAS, p.282.) In their own ways, these disciplines may help us to consider the ways that we have built and maintained walls in our lives. Hopefully, they will also lead us to a vision of being transformed in the image of God. For at the end of this Lenten path lies the resurrection of Jesus, which is the ultimate tearing down of every wall, including sin and death.
I wish you a holy Lent. With God’s help, may the walls come down, and may we be brought together in the love and service of Christ.