Sanctuary for the Stranger, Renewed Life for the Church

A voice says,

“Please help me.”

You could say No.

I am too busy.

I am too tired.

It is too late.

There are other places to go.

I do not know what to do.

You used to know before

you learned how the system can file

people away… forever.

You know you are, here and now

the one, the one who must respond:

This YOU must do. There is no other.

You have been faced.

The stranger moves forward

and fills the frame of your mind

and slowly comes into focus.

And you become focused.

Your life becomes weighty, consequential, significant.

Poem by Mary Jo Leddy, in her book “The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Call Us Home.” 

I once believed that Canada was a safe and just country. That was before I learned that unethical lawyers can take advantage of vulnerable refugees (after all, once they are deported, who is left behind to speak of a lawyer’s misconduct?). That was before I learned that sometimes people fall through the cracks of our justice system. That was before I met a little 5-year-old girl named, Lulu, who lived inside my church for a year and a half and taught me more about what it means to live out the gospel than anyone else I have ever met. The request for sanctuary shattered my worldview, tested my theology, and deepened my faith in God. Living into God’s call to love one’s neighbour (1 John 3:17) through the practice of sanctuary was more blessing than I ever thought possible in one lifetime.

The blinders of naiveté fell from my eyes the week before Christmas 2012. I was sitting in my office, at Windermere United Church, when the call came. The voice on the other end of the call said, “You won’t believe this but his name is…Jozsef. He has a wife and child and they need a safe place to stay… I’ve already called twenty churches but they said they were too busy preparing for Christmas. Would your church consider offering sanctuary?”

I knew that sanctuary was the practice of welcoming the desperate stranger whose hope had run out. Biblically rooted in God’s call to Moses to establish six cities of refuge (Numbers 35:13,15), sanctuary has been practiced by Christians throughout history; early Christians were saved from persecution by brave souls offering a place of refuge, the churches in the Middle ages were places of asylum, the Underground Railroad included sanctuary churches who opened their doors to slaves seeking freedom, and the last century saw Christians offering sanctuary to Jews in countries occupied by the Nazis. The current practice of offering sanctuary in North American churches is often the last hope for vulnerable refugees in need of protection. It is never entered into lightly.

Windermere United, a church with only a few dozen members, answered God’s call to offer sanctuary to Jozsef, Timea, and Lulu, a family of human rights activists from Hungary. People often think raising the money or meeting the physical needs will be the hardest part. I believe that God provides and we had very few challenges meeting the physical needs (we even had someone donate the money to build a shower). What nearly broke our spirits was the emotional toll on the family. How hard it was to walk out into the sunshine and know that innocent people were locked inside waiting through endless monotonous days for justice to come. Little children should not have to miss the first snowfall, the first springtime buds, the beach in summertime but some must trade years of joy for the hope of safety in Canada.

Hebrew’s 13: 2 reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I won’t romanticize sanctuary. I believe it was the hardest thing our church has ever done but as one congregant said, “our faith and our love now run deeper.” We walked with them through many dark nights and gave them welcome when the world had been devastatingly cruel.

As I write this story, we are celebrating the government’s decision to offer Temporary Resident permits to the family and help them become citizens on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. They will finally be free. Thanks be to God. For our tiny church there is a renewed sense of hope. God is still at work and every church, no matter the size, is invited to become a symbol of Christ’s refuge and hope. That has never been easy, but it has always been right.

Rev. Alexa Gilmour is the minister at Windermere United Church in Toronto.

Article originally published in Riding the Waves, 8.2, Spring 2016.

“I won’t romanticize sanctuary. I believe it was the hardest thing our church has ever done…”

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