Refugee Service Homily

Holy Family RefugeesHomily given by Sherman Hesselgrave at a service held at St James Cathedral, Toronto, on February 1st, 2015, The Eve of the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, to recognize parishes in the Diocese that have been engaged in ministry with refugees.

Malachi 3:1-4    Psalm 84:2-3, 5-6      Hebrews 2:14-18      Luke 2:22-40

In 1956, the Hungarian Revolution started with thousands of students marching peacefully through the streets of Budapest demanding an end to the Soviet occupation of Hungary. It was October 23rd, the day I turned four years old. The revolution had a short life, however. Twelve days later Nikita Khrushchev sent in the Red Army and the Hungarian forces were defeated. 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West, and about 6,000 of those refugees found their way to Ontario. We lived in Fort William at the time, and my father was the pastor of a Lutheran congregation that helped to settle one of those families. Their son was a little older than I, and I can still (believe it or not) visualize the red and green checked shirt that they gave me as a gift. I was too young to understand the political complexities, but I knew that this family who spoke a different language had come from far away and they needed our help making a new start.

It is doubly fitting that we are gathered this afternoon, on the Eve of the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, to give thanks for the ministry with refugees in this diocese. First, because the Holy Family themselves were forced to flee from their homeland to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous purge. And second, because the Feast of the Presentation has its origins in an ancient story about some other refugees who fled to Egypt. Egypt was where Hebrew refugees had originally settled to escape famine in their own land, but then became enslaved by the economic domination system of the Pharaohs. As a memorial of their deliverance through the first Passover and then the Exodus from Egypt, Jewish parents were required to present their firstborn to God. That is what Joseph and Mary were doing with Jesus in the Temple. When Simeon welcomed the baby in his arms, one wonders what he was imagining when he called Jesus a “light to the nations.”

For those of us gathered here today, is it possible that some of that light continues to shine through ministries that continue the biblical mandate to welcome resident aliens with hospitality? For many people, the world is a hostile place for no reason other than accidents of birth. Babies don’t choose whether they will be Hutu or Tutsi, Sunni or Shia, Bangladeshi or Canadian. A few years ago, in the Toronto Pride Parade, the Proud Anglicans happened to be marching just ahead of a group of gay Iranians, most of whom wore masks to shield their identities, because of the harm that might come to those close to them who still lived in Iran. We are privileged in so many ways to live in this country. And yet we know how quickly the winds can change.

In 2012, when the federal government proposed sweeping changes to the Interim Federal Health program, the health insurance program for refugees in Canada, Paul Caulford, the medical director of The Volunteer Clinic for Medically Uninsured Immigrants and Refugees here in Toronto, in a letter to the Star cited an example of how the system had failed a refugee claimant named Byron:

Being 38 years old and being shot at for your political views in Guatemala, seeing family and friends beside you gunned down, then fleeing for your life to Canada doesn’t get you refugee status. Working here for five years, paying taxes and volunteering with youth in your community, while trying to appeal your refugee denial, also gets you nothing — no status, no health care. Then getting cancer, well, just go away and die young man. So, that’s what he did. Turned down for lifesaving cancer treatment time and time again, Byron died, emaciated, on his apartment floor, never having taken a red cent from this country, but having given everything. What Guatemalan political thugs couldn’t accomplish, Canada did.

I think we can all agree that this story could have had a different ending.

Archbishop Johnson, in his column in the latest issue of The Anglican, our diocesan newspaper, writes:

I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the vows we make at our baptism compel us to engage with our government and the political system as an essential part of our Christian witness. Our faith gives us a particular lens through which to view the world around us. It shapes how we participate as citizens in the decisions about the way we live in this world, how others are included, and what priorities we set.

He then highlights three of the Five Marks of Mission that all Anglicans are encouraged to embrace as a way of living into their baptismal identity:

  • To respond to human need by loving service.

  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Many of you here today could share stories of what being engaged in this holy work has meant to you and to the people whom you have  sponsored. I asked a few people to share some stories with me.

Anyone who has been part of the refugee sponsorship process knows what a challenge it can be. It requires both considerable patience and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. A member of the sponsorship committee at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square tells the story of collaborating with the Church of the Redeemer in 1989 to sponsor a family of four from Cambodia: Mom, Dad and two daughters, ages 19 and 5. They did not arrive. Nor did they arrive in 1990. In the spring of 1991—still no Cambodians. Meanwhile, a group from Holy Trinity visiting El Salvador met Maria, the widow of a recently killed Salvadoran Trade Unionist, and her six children. “Why not sponsor Maria and family while we’re waiting? The money is there.” And so they did. And, under the “women at risk” program, the Salvadoran family arrived very quickly—in a matter of weeks. But, of course, the Cambodian family had finally obtained their travel visas, and they arrived six days before Maria and her family.

Then there was Ignace, who arrived in winter from Rwanda and asked, “Why are all the trees dead, but not cut down?” Or the new arrivals who could neither speak or read English, so to get to English classes they counted the subway stops, 7 in all.

Canada has changed considerably since 1956. The Greater Toronto Area is now one of the most multicultural metropolitan regions in the world. In 1956, three percent of the 200,000 refugees fleeing Hungary found a home in Ontario. Today, there are at least 3 million Syrian refugees alone, not counting the millions displaced in country. The quotas I hear mentioned are not nearly as generous as they were 60 years ago. But we don’t give up. We see and know that lives are changed through the important work of resettlement.

We are all related through Noah, and we are all refugees from Eden, and we have all been invited by the One who said “Follow me” to participate in bringing about the reign of God. The prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom where the lion and the lamb live together is not a fantasy, but the dream of God for all of us creatures. The systems of domination of this world will never bring the peace and justice we long for. It will take the kind of sacrificial loving and serving one another that the Eucharist calls us to remember every time we gather at God’s table where a place has been set for everyone who wants it.

May Christ, the “light of the nations,” be reflected in and through each of our lives in this Season of Light.

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