By Dave van Schaik and Tim Elliott
Few can forget the image in 2015 of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old boy who drowned trying to escape the Syrian war. It was the Labour Day weekend. That one photo started a chain reaction across Canada.
In our community, it galvanized the City of Stratford into action. The Mayor, councillors and staff organized a meeting to see what we could do locally. Service clubs, faith groups, the Festival Theatre, unions, school boards, businesses, and individuals came together.
The goal was five families through five sponsorship groups under the umbrella Stratford Welcomes Refugees. The City authorized a steering committee and there was agreement that we would welcome any family. We would not choose by religion, only by size and need. Avon Mennonite Church was the lead group as they were already prepared for a refugee family.
The story of our sponsorship family from Syria is their story and we are respectful of their privacy. However, we want to celebrate our experience of what happened when four churches came together.
One of the first things we learned was how silo-ed churches often are, even ones of the same denomination or neighbourhood in a small city. That’s what people observed when Stratford’s three Anglican parishes (St. James’, St. Paul’s, and St. Stephen’s) joined with Zion Lutheran. We were coming together to do this important work and we didn’t know each other. We had to get out of our siloes and get working quickly to figure out how we could welcome a family.
What helped us get going was the churches were working alongside service clubs, community groups, and other organizations. This was not just a church thing. We were part of a community effort and the clock was ticking.
We were fortunate to work with the Mennonite Central Committee. The clergy were involved early on but lay people took charge from the beginning. The work and challenges were identified and folks from the four congregations volunteered to get working on housing, medical/dental care, education, employment, not to mention furniture and supplies.
“It was an honour for me to work alongside so many volunteers from the four churches, each bringing their individual talents to the table. What an incredible group,” said one person. Another added: “The very best side of Christianity working together”.
Another said: “Coming together as four churches in Stratford to respond to the urgent need to DO SOMETHING filled my heart with the feeling that this was clearly what God wanted us to do.” Another said: “My hope and belief is many friendships will continue and grow. It is an opportunity also for our churches to nurture this spirit energy of working together”.
In the process, old relationships were renewed and new friends made. Meetings were held at different churches so the venues became familiar and comfortable. As we worked together church affiliation became less important as we had a common goal and hope.
There were anxious moments about housing and timing and a lot of uncertainty about how this might all work out. What if the family was bigger than the house we had lined up? How many beds? What ages are the children?
The anxiety of waiting was very stressful, according to Deacon Tom Patterson who chaired the SALT coordinating committee. What was particularly hard, he said, was that people wanted to know what was going on but we couldn’t give them any answers. When asked what got us through, he replied: “The Holy Spirit. It was also not just SALT – it was the four church communities wrapped around us too. Those communities were behind everything we were doing.”
In the end it worked out far better than we could have asked or imagined. The family arrived with four children and another was born in Stratford six months later. The house was perfect. A job was secured. Everyone is healthy. The older children are flourishing in school and there is so much to be thankful for.
Each of the SALT group members has developed their own rich relationship with the family. We held a potluck luncheon in January at St. James’ to celebrate and recognize the end of the sponsorship period. Roughly 40 people attended.
We went around the table and told our story and then enjoyed a musical presentation by some of the children of This Land is Your Land, and an unexpected solo by the 5-year-old girl of a song from the movie Frozen. We began as mostly strangers working together and have ended up as friends.
The bottom line is that we celebrate the positive experience of the energy and commitment of four churches in Stratford. It has brought us much closer together and also to the pain of the world. We hope that others will go and do likewise whether it’s a refugee sponsorship program or another social justice initiative. Define a need. Call a meeting. Get going. Life is too short to stay in our silos.
Dave van Schaik and Tim Elliott are members of SALT – Stratford Anglican Lutheran Team.