By Rev. Andrew Wilson
I am quite sure you have heard of Leamington, self-proclaimed Tomato Capital of Canada, victim of a corporate memo closing THE business, centre of a ketchup war, in the paper again after a viscous tornado in 2010, adjusting to a changing economy and social make-up.
This particular story can be seen as starting approximately ten years ago, before any of that happened, when the Venerable Stephen Haig co-founded LAERC (Leamington Area Ecumenical Refugee Committee). This group raises funds, sponsors and assists refugees by pooling the resources and skills of people form several churches including St John the Evangelist.
Fast forward, past the sixty-five people so far relocated; the war in Syria saw immense need and Canada committed to tens-of-thousands of refugees, Leamington deemed a core centre for relocation with one-hundred-and-forty or more people expected. A number of churches with the means sponsored families. Sponsored by LAERC was the Eid family (six members) and shortly after Stephen called and asked if we could sponsor an elderly couple whose daughter lives in Leamington. Papers signed, parents doing well. Six months later, we invited the Syrian community to our annual BBQ, twelve came out for a wonderful day.
More time, and tragedy. This time in Quebec: six men murdered in their mosque. I had to offer at least prayer. As Chair of the Ministerial, I called Alicia Good, Pastor for MLUMC and our Ministerial Secretary and asked, “What can we do?”
Together, we organized a Vigil (frankly, she did most of it), we called the media and LAERC and other organizations to let them know. As snow started to fall, around eighty people representing eight local churches and the Muslim community gathered in the knave of St John the Evangelist to hear scriptures: Hebrew, Gospel and Qur’an. To paraphrase an Iraqi man who fled his homeland seven years ago, “I have never felt safer than today, or as proud to be a Canadian right now”.
The last week of May I received a call. There are now thirty Muslim families living in Leamington and they need somewhere to pray together for Ramadan, they know our building is perfect. Skipping the many details involved in navigating rentals and other groups, we made the arrangements. A couple of dignitary visits, their council and Imam, to prepare themselves and envision how their prayers would come together and we were set.
We were invited to an opening dinner at a local complex, the people were told about where they would be going in a few minutes, their new Anglican Mosque – life imitates art, but this time it is real! With a smile best cliché I could come up with is “Little Mosque on the Marsh,” perhaps “By the Lake” as an ice-breaker to announce the news to the congregation. The number of thankyous and blessings offered to the parish that night seemed unending – often peppered with, “We have heard of you.” Our work in our community had in fact reached Windsor, our larger community. The Imam told the families, hundreds of men, women and children, how he and I had taken a class together, The History of Christianity and Islam at Huron, taught by Dr. Ingrid Mattson. He continued to tell the people about our relationship, the good relationships to be found between Christians and Muslims, how being from religions does not matter, it’s what we do that counts. It is about God.
I was truly overwhelmed by their grace and hospitality at what seemed to be a simple rental in the evenings, well after we were through. A space was now available for families to pray together as one during the most holy time of their calendar. What was a simple use of space for us was profoundly moving for an entire community in diaspora, only as of that day, the community wandered no more.
And there were more blessings to come. As the council and clerics toured the building and gym, I received an offer that floored me. In the gym, in casual conversation, the board member said, “I’ll send our painters over next week to paint your gym, I will pay for it.” And a week later, as the painters exited one door and as we prepped for Messy Church, our musicians literally entered through the other door. Our parishioner who teaches music entered with some of his students to lead the music. His musicians are all from the Mennonite community, his own ministry and relationship building.
By building relationships, and by acting as we believe Christ would, what could be viewed scripturally as “welcoming the alien,” but more accurately offering Christ’s hospitality. We did this not for benefit, but because it was the right thing to do, to open our space for prayer to an entire community that was in need of a home to be together. By living the Five Marks of Mission, we received immediate and unexpected blessings. And now our well-loved but admittedly tired gym is now shiny and new again, fresh and ready for new adventures. An incredible gift of generosity. What started as a simple short rental will extend for a few months, utilizing an otherwise unused space Friday afternoons and in the evenings when most of us have finished for the day. And while I will not say ‘no’ to the rental money, that was not our first thought. It came as an obvious blessing for our parish.
Through Ramadan, there will be families and prayers and blessings and dinners. There will be community and fellow-ship, and times our two communities can come together. Two communities have come together in one space to offer each other the blessings of hospitality to find they had unexpected gifts in return.
These gifts and blessings were not sought, but the result of building what seemed at the time to be small and obvious relationships to be built. Had the answer to the needs of the Holy Other been answered with a ‘no,’ God’s Spirit and Blessings could not flow. Had we said no, we would not have conversations with each other, we would not be asked about our worship, or be offered the Qur’an’s understanding of Christ, or be asked about our understanding of the same Christ. Saying yes to the Spirit leads to blessings.
Rev. Andrew Wilson is rector at St. John the Evangelist Church, Leamington