Can God be their refuge too?

Whada, a Syrian refugee mother living in Zahle, Lebanon, holds her young daughter, Waffa. Waffa has barely spoken since losing her father and her home in January 2013. UNHCR/E.Dorfman / May 2013
Can I throw a few statistics your way? 50 million people are displaced worldwide – they are known by the category “refugee.” 33 million people are internally displaced through war or famine. 1 million are asylum seekers. And over 20% of refugees right now are Syrian.

The reality of refugees has been growing for the past years. It’s been a hot button issue in Europe and our Canadian government has been taking increasingly restrictive action towards refugees coming to Canada.

In our age of post-9/11 anxiety, refugees are easily caricatured as security risks, drains on public funds or threats to economic livelihood. These are wrong and false. A refugee is not a shifty character simply looking for a freebie. They are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, in danger and quite literally running for their lives, seeking some way out of the squalor of refugee camps, desperate for life.

What else could explain the motivation to step into an overcrowded, ill-equipped boat and make a treacherous journey? What else might explain handing over life savings to shady smugglers in the hope of safe passage? What else might explain the body of the drowned Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish shore.

I don’t want to play on any emotional strings here but the image of tiny Aylan Kurdi’s body is important for us to see. It is a picture of what indifference to the refugee crisis looks like. This is the picture of what happens when cultures turn inward in fear, when governments increase the challenges for refugees or play on xenophobia.

This picture has a tragic Canadian angle – his relatives in B.C. made application for he and his family to come to Canada but they were rejected. This didn’t have to happen.

I can go a little crazy wondering if there isn’t some way to help? It feels so overwhelming but isn’t there something to do? Isn’t our faith one that cares about the stranger, the refugee? If so, then what is it moving us to do? What can we, at Knox Church, do together?

We have people part of our Knox community who are in the midst of refugee applications – pray for them, build relationships with them, getting to know them and their story. We also have a growing relationship with the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre (, with many opportunities to volunteer and donate. Even though this refugee crisis unfolds across the globe, these are immediate ways you can respond, here and now.

And then I wonder, could we think of sponsoring one person or maybe one family? I don’t underestimate that challenge at all – in the church I pastored in Calgary, we sponsored a variety of refugees from Bosnia and Sudan. This is a significant undertaking. It requires much planning, a dogged perseverance from a core group of volunteers (think years), a vigorous financial commitment, an even deeper relational commitment to help the refugees on landing, helping them learn the language and culture, navigate the system, find employment, etc. This would not be something for the faint of heart, not something we could do in half-measures. It is a path strewn with government paperwork, requiring a mountain of patience. It is not something we could walk away from when it got difficult, when it got too tiring or demanding or exasperating.

And maybe its not time. Maybe we as a community aren’t prepared, maybe we don’t have the needed organization or resources. Maybe our lives are filled with other important realities that demand our time and attention.

Probably. Almost certainly.

But maybe the image of that drowned Syrian refugee toddler washed up on beach is a breaking point. Maybe some voice deep in us says, “Enough!” Maybe there’s an anger that will not tolerate one more refugee statistic or government obfuscation. Maybe all the Biblical stories of seeking refuge (Israelites to and from Egypt, Jesus’ family in exile, and Paul’s travels) are no longer just words on a page but become living narratives. Maybe the gospel values of generosity, welcoming the stranger and justice for all become that much more charged and electric. Maybe there’s a growing part of us that wants to kick at all this indifference and darkness until something redemptive bleeds out. Maybe there’s a turn of our hearts that says “isn’t this what our faith is all about.”

Just maybe it takes a refugee to remind us of who we are called to be as the church.

And maybe our national history as a welcoming country to many who have sought protection, safety and an opportunity to begin their lives again means something more than a past fact (some of the first refugee populations to seek protection in Canada were British loyalists, Quakers and slaves who fled the American Revolution in the late 1700s; in the late 1970‘s Canada was the world leader in settling Indo-Chinese refugees; in 1986, the people of Canada won the United Nations Nansen Medal for its major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees). Maybe now is the time for Canadians to reclaim this lovely heritage because despite increasing numbers of refugees globally the number of resettlement spaces in Canada has remained constant (Canada now ranks 33rd among countries of refugees per capita).

And maybe there is something unique because Canada is unique among nations that welcome refugees, being the only country to allow sponsorship of refugees by private organizations. And maybe there is something unique that we are Presbyterian and our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, is an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (meaning that Knox, as a congregation in the PCC, is enabled to sponsor refugees to resettle in Canada).

So what can you do? What can we do?

First, let your heart be moved. Don’t look away from the issue.

Start talking with others, asking together “What can we do as a church?” Perhaps we need to gather all those interested together to talk and pray further.

If the idea of sponsorship is intriguing, I’d encourage you to read more about it at this link The Presbyterian World Service and Development team is a great resource we can turn to.

You might consider writing the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (email:

The Honourable Chris Alexander, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
The House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

And pray. Ask the Father what he would have you do, what he might be leading us as a community to do to live out the gospel in the midst of this unfolding tragedy.

no one is a stranger to you
and no one is ever far from your loving care.
In your kindness, watch over refugees and victims of war,
those separated from their loved ones,
young people who are lost,
and those who have left home or who have run away from home.
Bring them back safely to the place where they long to be
and help us always to show your kindness
to strangers and to all in need
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cover photo by UNCHR. Caption: “Whada, a Syrian refugee mother living in Zahle, Lebanon, holds her young daughter, Waffa. Waffa has barely spoken since losing her father and her home in January 2013.”
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