It was Oct. 28, 35 years ago. Our first daughter was just weeks away from her birth. They had arrived in Sutton – mother, father, two young girls and a boy – frightened, cold and bewildered. They were Vietnamese boat people that we and four other families from our parish had sponsored.
We had found a townhouse for them to live in, assembled furnishing and filled the fridge. They spoke no English, and we spoke no … actually, we didn’t know what language they spoke. (It turned out to be Cantonese.) We had no idea what we were doing or how it would work out, but we knew what an awful situation they had been through. (Actually, we learned much later that it had been worse than we could possibly have imagined on that cold morning. Only slowly did we find out that they were not mother and father with their children: they were brother and sister, with two nieces – the daughters of another sister – and a nephew, who escaped the last dreadful days of the Vietnam War. They were terrified that we would send them back.)
We taught them their first words of English and they practised them on our uncritical newborn infant. We wondered how they would fare in a small, rural community where there were no compatriots to meet. But they flourished in Canada. They worked so hard! Some years later, once they got established, they moved to Toronto. We kept up contact occasionally and attended their weddings. A couple of them have university degrees. All are highly accomplished. They were able to sponsor other family members to Canada.
On the 25th anniversary of their arrival, we had a reunion of the refugees and their sponsoring families. There were laughter and tears, old stories retold and ones that we heard for the first time. What an impact the sponsorship made on all of us! None of us will ever be the same because of it.
Just days after Christmas, either Dec. 28 or Jan. 11, depending on which calendar you use, the Church keeps the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It commemorates the destructive rage of Herod’s slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The Art Gallery of Ontario houses Peter Paul Rubens’ early 17th century masterpiece, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” a haunting portrait of hopeless despair and depraved brutality. (You can see it at http://www.ago.net/agoid106855.)
The infant Jesus was a refugee, forced from his homeland by violence and political machinations that came suddenly to his door. He followed the path of the children of Israel millennia before, escaping their famine-ravaged homeland to survive in Egypt. There they thrived for a while until they fell into slavery under the domination of a pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” In their escape, led by Moses, they were reminded before re-entering the Promised Land: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10).
Today, we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis ever. Our country’s prosperity has been built on the shoulders of immigrants and refugees, from the United Empire Loyalists to the potato-famine Irish, from the Chinese who built our railway to the scientists fleeing post-war Europe, from the Vietnamese boat people to the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Today, we need to respond again to the dire needs of the people around us. More than 16 million people – men, women and children – have been displaced by war, famine, persecution and disaster. Another 33 million are internally displaced in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, South Sudan, Colombia and Congo, to name but a few. They are running for their lives, eking out survival without adequate access to food, water, shelter, protection or education.
Canada can do much better in responding. People and parishes in the Diocese of Toronto can help. AURA (Anglican United Church Refugee Alliance, a FaithWorks partner) brings refugees to Canada “where they can get a fresh start under the care of faith communities. Working with the Diocese and the Toronto Conference of the United Church, AURA matches UN convention refugees with parishes and congregations. They arrange for private sponsorship, facilitate the application process, advocate with the federal government and assist parishes with settlement issues. More than 50 parishes are currently sponsoring refugees. AURA is an essential resource as refugees begin the often overwhelming process of starting over in a new country.” (From the FaithWorks brochure and www.auraforrefugees.org.)
We can help. We have the history, the structures, the capacity and the will to respond. And we have the mandate: “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25).
Join me at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 1 at St. James Cathedral for a special Eucharist to give thanks for the work of refugee sponsors and those they have helped, and to pray for refugees and for openings to engage in this ministry more compassionately and more effectively.