The current refugee crisis in the Middle East has been foremost on the minds of many, especially as Canadians have started welcoming refugees in the past couple weeks. Knox church itself has started the process of sponsoring a refugee family, hoping to play a very small part in responding with compassion and welcome to those who are in great need of both.
In the late 70s, there was a similar narrative on the hearts and minds of the world, and of Knox. It is a most appropriate time to share this throwback; a pair of letters written by Knox’s Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee to the congregation with their plan to sponsor Vietnamese refugees that had been displaced in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What’s particularly striking about these documents is how they speak so clearly into how we, as a church, need to respond today.
Here are some excerpts from the letter, dated Sept. 17, 1979:
“Media reports have made us all well aware of the plight of several hundred thousand human beings brutally expelled from their homeland. These are the “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. As of July 1, 1979 there were estimated to be 350,000. It is estimated that many more people have already died at sea. This is a human tragedy of such a magnitude that we can scarcely imagine the degree of suffering: pain, death, grief, hunger and sickness, loneliness, fear, despair.
We at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, have the opportunity and the responsibility to reach out in compassionate love to the Lord Jesus Christ, our King, who identifies himself with the needy of this earth (read Matt. 25: 31-46). Let us all take time to reflect upon Jesus’ commentary on the Old Testament command (Lev. 19:18) to “love your neighbor as yourself” in His parable of the “good Samaritan” (Lk. 10: 25-37). Surely this great parable has direct application to our responsibility to be neighbours to the “boat people” refugees. We know that practical love is of the essence of what it means to be a genuine Christian (read I Jn. 3:14-18).
The Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee has been established to give focus and leadership to our congregation’s efforts to help the “boat people” and in so doing, to obey the command of the lord our God. We on the committee would appreciate your fervent prayers on our behalf. Let us pray for an unleashing of the limitless resources of our sovereign God as He works through His church.
The Canadian government has agreed to admit to Canada a maximum of 50,000 Vietnamese refugees by the end of 1980. The government will sponsor up to 25,000. The private sector must sponsor the other 25,000. The government is sponsoring on a one-to-one basis: one government-sponsored refugee for one private-sponsored refugee. The onus is on us to help decide how many refugees will be helped by Canada.
Will you “fellowship” with us in this ministry of compassion that is integral to the continuing mission of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who cares both for our bodies and our souls?
May God’s blessing be on us as we proceed.”
There were a number of ways that congregants could support the effort in 1979. Some of those included making a prayer commitment, contributing a financial lump sum, providing household effects, housing, professional services, employment, interpreting, language training, cleaning and decorating, transportation, help processing forms, etc.
The church responded. In fact, all of Canada did. Between 1979 and 1980, our country accepted 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. In a letter to congregants in June of 1980, Knox’s Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee outlined the successful sponsorship of two young men. The Knox community had helped ensure they had a temporary home while they found their footing, and made sure they could attend English classes.
The beginning of that letter also rings relevant and important as we consider the plight of the Syrian refugees today:
If you would like to help Knox as we continue to raise money in order to sponsor a young Iraqi woman and her Syrian son, you can do so here
For more information about The Boat People and Canada’s response to their crisis, check out this CBC piece.