Monday, 28 September 2015

Pope's message not one often heard in the West

I just gets more and more weird. Pope Francis, I mean.

Many years ago a wise pastor told me that ministry was always a tightrope walk between law and gospel, mercy and hardness. I learned over a lifetime in ministry just how true that was. There were times when people wanted you to be literal and hard as nails. And there were other times when bending towards mercy not only was the right thing, it was the only thing possible.

Pope Francis is living the way of mercy. And it is getting him some hard knocks.

Francis call to the Roman Catholic parishes of Europe is particularly direct. He challenged every parish to welcome one refugee family. What is even more remarkable about this is that he has made it clear that such offers of sanctuary, a historic tradition and practice of the Christian Church for millennia, should be done without regard to the faith of the refugee. It is to be done openly, with welcome to all.

Francis has also called into question the unfettered capitalism of the world’s markets, attacked the idolatry of money and in his recent encyclical, “Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou should not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."  He has also referred to the unfettered pursuit of money as the “dung of the devil”.

There are those whom this kind of plain talk offends. They are, more often then not, the privileged and the wealthy. They would rather see the church confines to the cloister and the sacristy (the room behind the alter where the priest prepares the elements for the Eucharist).

That’s not Pope Francis.

Francis, if his public record is an indication, has said, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

This is not what the western church, and particularly the church in North America, has been used to hearing. Some of the western church is more accustomed to literal reading of scripture; of counting jots and tittles; of believing the Bible was written in the King James Version originally and has never changed.

Francis’ message is different. He reminds us all to be merciful, as God is merciful. Be kind as God is kind. Serve the people on the edges of society, not be served by them. Share what you have with the people on the margins and treat them with dignity and respect. Welcome the stranger.

If this is the message of Pope Francis to North America, then it’s time we woke up. There is much work to be done to serve God’s justice and to change the world. Are we listening?

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 14 September 2015

We might help refugees more in support role

Like many Canadians, I had a visceral reaction to the photos of the body of young Alan Kurdi washing ashore on a Turkish beach. Since then, a lot has happened.

The Prime Minister has said that Canada will continue to admit refugees from Syria on a priority basis, but he would not compromise Canadian security by starting an airlift or even an expedited refugee process.

I am told by colleagues that there was much after-church chatter over coffee about what we could do, and that there were some vague feelings of unsettlement that “something” should be done. But not having access to a congregation’s coffee hour, I did some of my own listening this past week. What I found out may be surprising.

I spoke to some of those involved in the most recent refugee family resettlement in Owen Sound. They made some important points which I hope people would consider seriously before moving forward with refugee sponsorship.

The first thing I was told is that one family being resettled in Owen Sound as refugees is incredibly tough. There is generally no supportive larger community of the same nationality. This was a serious problem with the Karin family from Burma. As the nearest Karin community was in Hamilton, support and encouragement from fellow refugees and immigrants was almost impossible. The need for supportive community in that first year could not be stressed enough, I was told.

The second thing I was told was that Grey Bruce has very little to offer in the area of employment for refugees with little or no English language competence or Canadian job skills. Seasonal work shuts down in December. It’s a long winter. Lack of meaningful work leads to many complications, crisis and even depression among refugees in that crucial first year.

Finally, Grey Bruce does not have the refugee and immigrant support services found in larger centres. These services, sometimes called settlement houses, offer a one stop place to navigate to ins and outs of a new country. They provide services in the refugee or immigrant’s own language. They teach English. They provide support and assistance to help families get through the red tape of a new country as well as a listening ear when things just get to be too much. The nearest settlement house services are in Kitchener or London. There is nothing in Grey Bruce.

So what can we do?

In these situations of human tragedy my own default position is to send money. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a donation to any of the larger charitable groups serving refugees is a good way to begin.

Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada is offering up to fifty grants of $5,000 each to sponsorship groups. The only criterion is that the group have some connection to a local United Church.

The Archdiocese of Toronto of the Roman Catholic Church is putting its considerable resources into play to welcome one hundred refugee families to the community.

Many local churches and faith groups in larger centres are starting to dialogue and share resources to bring refugees to Canada.

There is an ongoing need to help civilians caught up in the civil war in the Middle East who are in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They need to be fed and protected. We can support the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Mennonite Central Committee, ACT Alliance (the world’s Christian churches relief body) and the UN to help relieve their misery.

Bringing a refugee family or families calls for great thought, prayer and consideration. I hope those who want to do the hard work will talk to those with experience, first. And perhaps what we can do best is to support the work of others with better access to supportive community and resources. 

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

We need to change our refugee program now

The image was as tragic as it was heartbreaking. The photo of a child’s body, lying face down in the sand, washed ashore on a Turkish beach. The next photo showed the child’s body being carried from the surf in the arms of a Turkish police officer.

We aren’t used to seeing these kind of graphic images in North America. Our media tends to filter such things out of our view. Yet that is the stark reality of death and death as a refugee.

It turns out the child has a name, Alan Kurdi. Not only did he have a name, but it turns out Alan’s extended family in Canada had applied to bring the boy, his brother and mother to Canada as refugees. Alan’s mother and brother also died.

According to MP Fin Donnelly, he had brought the family’s case to the attention of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, earlier this year. The family’s refugee application was later rejected. Neither the family nor Donnelly received any reason for the rejection.

Something is wrong here. Something is terribly wrong, morally and ethically. We have somehow allowed the government to develop refugee policies which are restrictive, disrespectful of families and unprotective of genuine refugees.

According to the Canadian Council on Refugees, a national non-profit umbrella organization committed to the rights and protection of refugees and other vulnerable migrants in Canada and around the world and to the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada, Canada has neglected its historically strong humanitarian component of its immigration program. Specifically, the current wait for immigration for reunification between parents and children is almost three years.

The current government has also shifted the burden of refugee sponsorship (of approved refugees, who may have already waited years in a UN refugee camp) to the private and non-profit sector and especially on religious communities. That’s all well and good, but the additional resources needed for resettlement have continually been reduced or made more complex through additional paperwork.

The government also withdrew health care services from non-sponsored refugees provided little or no support for these refugees. They were not receiving anything more than what anyone would on ODSP or Ontario Works. However the Federal Court of Canada declared the cuts unconstitutional and forced the government to reintroduce refugee health care.

Our current government has a very poor record on the immigration file. We need a broad, inclusive and effective refugee resettlement program now. The government needs to step up and put in place a sponsored and funded non-discriminatory resettlement program for refugees. It need to support and encourage the private sector to add to that program, allowing families, non-profit organizations and religious bodies to sponsor members of their own group or communities in which they have an interest.

Finally, look at your own family history. Do you think your family would have been allowed into Canada under our current rules and programs? I doubt it. Most of us are here because of immigration policies and practices which were permissive rather than restrictive. We need to think and act to do more in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in recent history. For Alan’s sake, if for no one else.

Let’s hope Alan Kurdi’s death is not in vain. Let’s hope it will catalyse the current government to move quickly to assist in refugee resettlement. We have done it before and we can do it again. We’re Canadians and we do this kind of thing.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.