Long before the suffering of millions of Syrian refugees finally reached the mainstream media, Canadian groups were sponsoring people seeking refuge from around the world. For decades, United Church congregations have been part of an innovative sponsorship option offered by the federal government and the national United Church; any local church can offer to support one or more refugees for at least one year, and in so doing opens the door to their coming to Canada.
The national United Church notes, “As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) with the federal government, the United Church has been sponsoring Syrian refugees for resettlement in Canada since 2013. In 2015, 202 congregations across the church joined with other groups in their communities to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. So far in 2015, United Church groups have sponsored 378 Syrian refugees; a further 50 refugees were expected be processed by Christmas. United Church groups throughout Canada have raised over $3 million to sponsor Syrian refugees this year alone.”
And these figures don’t include the sponsorship of refugees from other parts of the world. This is an enormous, long-term undertaking that echoes decades of earlier work. Welcoming refugees has long been central to our beliefs and collective life as faith communities.
Many of these sponsoring congregations are Affirming or in the process of voting on whether to become Affirming. Some have, over the years, sponsored refugees under a federal program that offers refuge to LGBT people facing threats to their lives. (This program has its limitations; for an irreverent summary of problems faced by some refugee claimants, check out a series of two articles from Xtra.) Other ministries, like MacDougall United in Edmonton, support LGBT refugees through the local Pride centre instead. Still others support initiatives like Rainbow Railroad and the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia.
For a more in-depth look at a sponsoring Affirming congregation, Metropolitan in Toronto, have a look at this short video. Recently CBC also featured a personal story from a Syrian woman sponsored by Affirming ministry Fairlawn Heights United in Toronto, and then added to the series once the family had safely arrived.
David Lander, an Affirm supporter and member of Castleton-Grafton pastoral charge in Ontario, says, “I think the family that Castleton-Grafton United church sponsored a year and a half ago was particularly related to our becoming Affirming; our first planning meeting was just the week before our Affirming celebration service. I …think our focus on affirmation, and a fairly broad view of affirmation, made us more open to this endeavour.”
Rev. Jeff Doucette at Dunbarton-Fairport United Church, an Affirming congregation in Ontario, adds, “I love the fact we are deepening the meaning of Affirming (by talking about sponsorship). I think it gets to the heart of churches becoming a “safe space” for all people… but as important, that we as individuals of our community declare ourselves “safe spaces” by our words and actions. ”
To be a truly safe and inclusive space is at the heart of being Affirming; while our work begins with sexual and gender minorities, it does not end there, and the work to expand that safe space is always evolving.
Conversations on our Affirm United community Facebook group surfaced the following Affirming or in-process ministries who have sponsored or supported refugees in the past or are doing so now:
Oak Bay United and St Aidan’s United, Victoria BC; Kamloops United, BC; Nelson United, Nelson, BC; MacDougall and Southminster-Steinhauer in Edmonton, AB; McKillop in Lethbridge, AB; St Andrew’s River Heights, Winnipeg MB; First United, Ottawa; Castleton-Grafton pastoral charge, ON; Shining Waters Presbytery, ON; Bedford United, Dartmouth NS; and in Toronto: Jubilee, Eastminster, Trinity-St Paul’s, Bloor Street, Fairlawn Avenue, Metropolitan, and Bathurst.
We know this list doesn’t include everyone. If we missed you, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about your experience. Did being Affirming help shape your decision to sponsor? If so, how?