Welcoming the Stranger
By Ruth Cassidy (DMiss '09)
Jean, a refugee from Zimbabwe, had lived in Canada less than a year when I first approached her to discuss her experience. She hesitated and said she would get back to me, praying about my request for months. Eventually, she began to ask herself, "Why am I here and what does God want from me?" and this question finally prompted her to share the intimate details of her life. Her refugee experience had turned her world upside down, and she was floundering under the weight of it. As Jean told me her story, she gained new understanding of God's activity in her journey. We looked at the Bible together, and the sheer number of refugees playing important roles in God's mission convinced Jean that God uses refugees in special ways. Today, Jean radiates joy and offers encouragement and service to the refugee community in Toronto.
I first developed a concern for refugees through volunteering with the International Justice Mission while my husband and I were living in Washington DC. I couldn't believe the human rights abuses that were going on in the world, and when our term in DC ended, I wanted to make a difference back home in Toronto, as well. The call to serve came from Anne Woolger-Bell, founder and director of Matthew House Refugee Reception Services in Toronto. I'm currently on its board of directors and have participated in the opening of another mission to refugees based on the Matthew House model.
Over the past few years, my academic work in Fuller's Doctor of Missiology program has focused around my concern for refugees. For my dissertation, I collected the life stories of seven Christian refugees living in the Toronto/Hamilton area of Canada in order to understand the influence of homeland, migration, and acculturation on their Christian witness. My goal was to discover ways to encourage refugees who were suffering from the debilitating effects of migration and reinvigorate their witness for the sake of the gospel.
In my studies, I have found that Christian refugees naturally expect to worship, serve, and find community in the church. They expect the church to be their new family, embracing and loving, but more often than not, their experience is disappointing and even disheartening. Many have encountered ignorance, fear, racism, or even outright rejection. According to Paul, a young refugee from Liberia, many refugees stay home on Sunday morning because of the mistreatment they have endured in North American churches. Luke, a refugee from the Congo, took a year off from church, but the Holy Spirit and Scripture kept him under conviction the whole time. Finally, he met so many refugees who were staying home as well, he gathered them together and formed a new church.
Fuller's DMiss program put me in contact with other students working on topics similar to my own. I was in the first DMiss cohort--a small learning community completing the program together--designed to facilitate study while remaining in ministry. During our four-year program, my five classmates and I met once a year for two-week intensive courses. Once home, we faced two major assignments over the following six months that pulled together the lectures, new literature, and our ethnographic research. Dan Shaw, our faculty mentor, continually encouraged us to learn from one another's research and quote one another. In the end, I have a fuller understanding of the context, issues, and challenges facing refugees by the give and take that took place in our cohort.
After graduating in June, I hope to respond to some of the findings of my dissertation. I want to help expand the horizons of my fellow longtime-Canadian Christians and encourage them not to expect refugees to become just like "us," but rather to strive together to become just like Jesus. The establishment of cross-cultural training programs in our churches might be one small step toward this goal. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 33 million refugees in the world today. I have a vision to see an arm of the church raised up to recognize and strengthen them, embracing Christian refugees as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Ruth Cassidy completes her DMiss degree in June. She welcomes feedback and questions about mission to refugees, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Names of refugees in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.