Know thy neighbour: reaching out to the lonely

Back in January, St. Matthew’s in South Windsor opened its door to the newcomers from China offering ESL classes to the parents of the high school students who came to study in Canada. The program was selected to receive Diocesan Jubilee Grant.

By Rev. Andreas Thiel

Many people will recall the diocesan initiative of several years ago, ‘Who Is My Neighbour?’ The St. Matthew’s community in South Windsor felt the thrust of that particular question in a most unexpected way this past year. And it all began with a “cold call”…

In January 2018, a stranger walked through the doors of St. Matthew’s, just after our main Sunday service. He asked to speak with the pastor, and after I introduced myself, he explained the reason for his visit.

The weekly sessions of ESL program at St. Matthew’s, Windsor last two hours, averaging 18 learners and up to six instructors. On Thursday mornings the church hall rings with chatter and laughter.

The gentleman happened to be a local real estate agent, and he thought that we would be interested in learning that over the past few years, an increasing number of area homes were being bought or rented by people who had come to Canada from China. Their reason for emigrating was simple: so that their children could benefit from a Canadian high school education. And not just any high school: through careful research from their homes in China, they had determined that Vincent Massey High School (located across the street from St. Matthew’s) offered some of the highest quality education in the province.

As the realtor spoke, it became clear that families who go to such great lengths to provide exceptional learning experiences for their children may in fact pay a steep price for doing so.

In this case, the price being paid was one of isolation. While their children attended school during the days, the parents – often with minimal English language skills – kept to themselves. In a foreign land, in an unfamiliar culture, for many, this had turned into a somewhat lonely existence.

Out of this conversation came a simple question: would the people of St. Matthew’s consider providing help to these newcomers to our neighbourhood?

The word ‘Yes’ came out before we could even give it any thought. Among our parishioners, we knew we had people who were skilled in education: we had at least one retired ESL teacher; we had people who had a flair for providing hospitality.

Armed with those resources, we opened the doors of St. Matthew’s to our very first English as a Second Language class in Easter week! The weekly sessions (two hours, averaging 18 learners with up to six instructors) involve large group interaction, small group study, conversation and fellowship.

On Thursday mornings, our church hall rings with chatter and laughter, and in a very short period, a unique community has begun to emerge. Members of this new community are quick to help out at any parish-wide event. And a few have even requested regular bible study. All of this, because a mysterious visitor dared to come through our doors on a snowy January Sunday, for the purpose of helping us to better understand just who our neighbours are.

There are obvious biblical resonances to our recent experience here at St. Matthew’s: showing hospitality to the soujourner − reaching out to the lonely; noticing those who live on the boundaries of society; and perhaps the most obvious of all, that well-known parable as found in Luke’s gospel, the “good Samaritan.”

Each of these examples would suggest that those who do the reaching out are somehow at an advantage, and that the recipients gain something as a result. However, these past several months have taught us that the dynamics of human relationships transcend this view.

In our reaching out, we have found that others have reached out to us. In ministering to others, we ourselves have been ministered to. As we reflect on that reality, we begin to see that the term “neighbour” applies to us all, and that the flow of God’s grace knows no boundaries.

This past spring, we were delighted to learn that this fledgling initiative had been selected to receive a diocesan Jubilee Grant. The funds have enabled us to purchase dedicated equipment and resources to keep our program functioning. We appreciate the financial assistance, and we love every minute of witnessing how the Jubilee Grant supports this “new thing” in our midst.

God has blessed this church family with an unexpected new focus, and has provided us with the precious opportunity of reaching out in a way that responds to the unique needs of our neighbourhood. For this realization, we can only say, “Thanks be to God!”

Rev. Andreas Thiel is the rector of St. Matthew’s, Windsor.

Photo: Gordon Drake