Refugee sponsorship reinvigorates churches

20 November 2017
Republished with permission from Faith Today, Nov/Dec 2017.

Evangelical Christians have welcomed a disproportionate number – and found the process a blessing


A single mom and her five daughters arrived last year in Nova Scotia, looking for a new, peaceful life. This Iraqi Muslim family flew in from a refugee camp in Turkey and were embraced by believers from Paradise Baptist Church, a congregation of no more than 40 people in rural Bridgetown, N.S.

The church had no budget and had been debating the use of their picturesque white wooden building. However, after learning about the Syrian refugee crisis, they felt the call to be Jesus to this family. They partnered with other churches, rallied the community and raised thousands of dollars, giving the mother and her five girls a fighting chance at the peace they sought.

Paul Carline is director of intercultural ministries with the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada (formerly the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches). The group is a government-recognized organization that can sponsor refugees or help other groups do so (a "Sponsorship Agreement Holder").

In March 2015 Carline squeezed into a meeting organized by Paradise Baptist Church while they were initially gathering information. People attended from nine churches in the area. "It was in that meeting I realized, I’m getting caught up in something here," Carline says. "It wasn’t like we were guilting churches into doing one more good thing. It was more about worship and being thankful for what God had done for them."

The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada has been doing sponsorship work since 1997. Before 2016 they settled one family a year on average. In 2016 Carline and his team helped sponsors settle 303 people. That sudden demand meant hiring a part-time assistant.

The denomination, he says, didn’t necessarily have money to spare, but they invested anyway. People who couldn’t sponsor refugees directly donated funds. Thousands of dollars came in from other organizations and denominations.

Then the image of Alan Kurdi, the boy found dead on a beach in Turkey, shocked and inspired more Canadians to action. As of January 2017, Canada had settled 40,018 Syrians. Evangelical denominations accounted for more than 3,500 of those refugees.

"We estimate that the number of refugees sponsored by evangelical churches represents approximately 19 per cent of all Blended Visa office-referred and Privately Sponsored Syrian and Iraqi Refugees who came to Canada between November 2015 and January 2, 2017," says Bruce Clemenger, President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Canadians should realize, he says, that evangelical Christians contributed to the nation’s refugee sponsorship effort well above their proportion of the population (sociologists suggest less than 12 per cent of Canadians are Evangelicals).

Canadian evangelical churches have played a significant part in the Canadian Middle Eastern refugee sponsorship story, helping to provide new homes and lives to many displaced individuals, and providing the important but often overlooked element – a welcoming community.

"It has been amazing to watch how churches have come together and welcomed refugees into their midst," says Clemenger. "It’s not an easy task."

Mennonite Central Committee is another Sponsorship Agreement Holder. It has sponsored refugees since 1979 and today has sponsorship programs in five provinces. During the Syrian refugee crisis it was inundated with phone calls and emails from people who wanted to help. It sponsored 1,100 refugees in a nine-month period, 850 of them Syrian.

Brian Dyck is their national migration and resettlement co-ordinator and heads up their national refugee strategy. When all the government-recognized sponsor groups in Canada gather to compare notes in a Sponsorship Agreement Holder association, Dyck sits as its chairman.

Dyck has always found the small town of Altona, Man., inspiring. Over the past 11 years Altona has settled 30 refugee families from around the world. As more of the Syrian crisis was broadcast, Altona held a prayer meeting. Between December 2015 and August 2016, Altona settled five Syrian families, 45 people in total, or one per cent of their population.

"It has been humbling and overwhelming," Dyck says. "Our churches are coming to us in ways they haven’t since 1980 [when there was a crisis of refugees from Southeast Asia]. At the same time, we have people coming to us who have no affiliation with us, no faith perhaps, saying they want to work with us, and we’re trying to do that as much as we can."

Joanne Beach has visited the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. She’s Christian and Missionary Alliance’s director of justice and compassion. She opened her own home in Ancaster, Ont., to give refuge to a Syrian family for the first few weeks of their Canadian life as they registered for ESL classes, set up bank accounts and looked for jobs.

Settlement can be a finicky process, but statistics show refugees sponsored by private groups fare better than government-sponsored refugees. Resettlement is done one step at a time. Completing all the required paperwork, securing the necessities for life and navigating the trauma of escaping a war zone are big challenges, for refugees and sponsors alike.

Most sponsors, says Beach, experience blessings and satisfaction from their involvement, even with the challenges.

"The Syrian culture is so hospitable that [sponsors] were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the refugees who love to be in community," says Beach.

To help churches and faith groups through the resettlement process, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada organized a working group for all its affiliate groups that hold sponsorship agreements. When the Syrian crisis pumped waves of people into Canada, these forums became even more important.

Leaders like Beach, Carline and Dyck say they appreciate being able to talk in that group about how their faith works with sponsorship. Questions like How do sponsorship and witness work together? aren’t covered in secular associations, they say.

Evangelical leaders who watched Canadian churches step up to the Syrian crisis say many first-time sponsors are reaching out again, and this time to refugees from different nations.

Others are deciding their newfound vigour is best invested in their own communities. "We’re just as happy when a church says, ‘We’re not going to do another sponsorship, but we’re going to invest in our community,’" says Carline.

"This response is reminding us why we exist."

Joel Arndt is a writer based in Hamilton, Ont. Watch the EFC's recent webinar on churches and refugees featuring Brian Dyck. Read more articles like this by subscribing to Faith Today.

Related Topics