World Refugee Day – Distant but together
By Jack Taylor
In light of systemic racism, social unrest, and the desperate needs of refugees piercing our aura of peace and prosperity, how do we respond so that God’s kingdom comes, and His will gets done on earth as it is in heaven? How do we move forward to establish that taste of heaven where people from every tribe and tongue and nation celebrate the unity in diversity marking the people of God?
The pressure of Covid-19, the pervasiveness of social media tools, and the determination of people world-wide to have their voices heard, call us to engage in the fight for equality, inclusiveness and a change to systems which deny life and flourishing to our fellow beings. June 21 and 28 have been set aside for churches to focus their minds and hearts on the world at their doorstep.
There is no place for racism
Village church pastor, Mark Clark, shared a video declaring that “racism is a misunderstanding of the gospel” and that “if you’re a Christian there is no place for racism in your heart.” He noted that sometimes the church tends to pick and choose the sins it focuses on.
Aaron White, formerly of the Salvation Army, now national director of 24-7 Prayer Canada, says clearly that “racism is anathema. It is heresy, blasphemy. It is anti-Christ. It is the kingdom of darkness, the opposite of the home Jesus is preparing for every tribe, nation, tongue and people. The proper posture is to mourn our allegiance to this spirit and to commit to repentance.”
Church as healing sanctuary
Nations are in turmoil as they wrestle for direction in how they will face increasing globalization in the face of a tsunami of 70.8 million people (30 million refugees) forced from their homes by conflict, persecution and economic desperation. Basic rights like education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of faith and movement are unavailable to many of these. Churches should be healing sanctuaries for the broken, oppressed, and disheartened. How do we reposition our mission and vision to embrace the strangers and release the God-given resources of our people to be messengers of hope and healing?
Loren Balisky, co-founder of Kinbrace refugee homes in 1998 and now director of engagement, says “Participating in World Refugee Day is a deliberate and meaningful way to announce solidarity with the vulnerability of those who are forcibly displaced, seeking protection and a new home. It’s an opportunity to celebrate human resilience while asking whether our neighbourhoods, churches, governments, and personal choices support that resilience or whether we actually make life more difficult for refugees. Participation is an act of reorientation to the importance of being with those who are vulnerable.” Kinbrace, Journey Home, Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, and New Hope Community Services Society partner with churches locally to meet the housing and settlement needs of refugees. So how can churches engage?
Being aware and praying is a good start. Every minute, 20 people leave everything behind to escape fear, death and pain – not by any choice of their own making. Isaiah 58:6-7 calls us to open ourselves to their needs. It is a vital step of trust in God to give away what we have with the assurance that our own needs will be met. A refugee is defined as someone who flees their home and country because of “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Natural and human-made disasters have also launched people from the safety of their own culture and community. Creative relationship building, sponsoring, and volunteering still have their place.
James Grunau, founder of Journey Home Community Association, reminds us that COVID-19 has not stopped persecution in the world but has stopped the opportunity for refugees to flee this persecution except in some circumstances. Refugees suffer even more now because of COVID with less access to food and health care provisions. The needs of refugees have only increased, certainly globally, but even here in our own cities especially with less opportunity to access services (IRCC and IRB offices closed) and less opportunity for socialization.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention (and the 1967 Protocol) are the only global legal instruments designed to cover the vulnerable and to assure that their basic needs are met. The provisions included state that, “refugees deserve the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a country.” One right is that refugees wouldn’t be returned to their home country if they face serious threats to their life or freedom unless they are a danger to the security of their new country or if they have been convicted of a serious crime.
Real people, just like you and me
Balisky says “My own story of displacement and search for belonging having been born in Ethiopia of Ukrainian-European-Canadian heritage and moving to Canada at the age of 20 continues to motivate me to create a world of welcome for those experiencing traumatic forced displacement. I lived in the Kinbrace community (transitional housing with refugee claimants) for 19 years with my wife and children, and I learned much about what it means to welcome and be welcomed in a world tragically wracked by forced displacement. Perhaps the most important learning continues to be that, before anything else, those flung into the refugee experience are people like you and me who long for dignity, normalcy, and self-determination. An intentional, yet spacious, welcome grounded in ancient practices of hospitality complements the courage and resilience of people seeking refuge, leading to a stronger, increasingly generous and transformative society as a whole.”
Balisky notes that the “COVID-19 pandemic response by Canada and other nation-states by closing borders puts refugees and people seeking refugee protection in extremely precarious situations. We need to open our borders to people in need of protection so they are safe.”
There will be a Multi-Agency Partnership celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20 featuring music, poetry, creative art and messages from refugees who will share their voice and heart with those who would hear. The theme of ‘Distant but together’ displays the desire that community will happen despite the realities of Covid-19.