Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Refugees answer churches' prayers

Help revitalize struggling places of worship

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Newcomers to Manitoba don't just energize and reinvigorate communities -- they revitalize churches, too.

That's what happened to First Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg.

The West End church, founded in 1925, was experiencing the fate of many other downtown congregations: declining numbers and an aging membership.

Today, however, attendance is up, and there are a number of young families -- all due to refugee sponsorship.

"The reality is that our church is alive today because of the refugees we sponsored," says church member Tom Denton. "They have brought a vibrancy to our church, numbers plus youthfulness."

Over the past 30 or so years, First Presbyterian has sponsored hundreds of refugees, Denton says, including many from Congo, Cameroon and Rwanda. They are also waiting for a family of seven from Congo.

Most didn't end up as regular attendees, but today about 25 per cent of the 100-strong congregation are from Africa.

Along with numbers and age, the exuberance of the newcomers has also helped the church to "loosen our collar," says Denton, who directs Hospitality House, a Winnipeg faith-based refugee sponsorship organization.

The bonus is what the refugees have brought to the congregation. "We are no longer an aging or dying church," he says.

First Presbyterian is among the many Canadian churches that play a significant role in sponsoring refugees. The federal Private Sponsorship of Refugee program, has opened Canada's doors to more than 200,000 refugees, many of them church-sponsored.

While the benefits for refugees are obvious -- safety, and a fresh start -- churches also profit from the experience.

At the Sturgeon Creek United Church, it's been "a really uplifting" experience for the congregation, says Heather Friesen, who directs that church's refugee committee. Since the St. James church started sponsoring refugees in 1979, it has brought in eight families, including one from Kenya.

St. Matthews Anglican Church has had a similar experience, says Gail Schnabl, who directs that church's refugee committee.

Sponsoring refugees, she says, "has changed us. It's an educational experience. It widens us to the world."

Hearing the stories the refugees tell "makes you realize how blessed you are to live in Canada," she says.

Sponsoring refugees isn't always easy. The sponsoring church must provide financial support, and there is an investment of time and energy that some underestimate at the start.

"When we witness first hand (refugees') struggles to adjust to a new land and culture, we realize that the hospitality God calls us to will cost us more than simply a line in our budget," says Gerry Derksen, pastor of River East Mennonite Brethren Church, which has sponsored refugees since 1979.

Canadian churches won't be sponsoring any new refugees this year -- the government capped new sponsorship in an effort to deal with a huge backlog of cases. Some churches will welcome people who were approved before the cap.

Yet, even if they are unable to sponsor refugees now, congregations that have can look back on their efforts with satisfaction.

As Derksen puts it: "Our experience of sponsoring refugees over many years has only strengthened our commitment to this kind of ministry. It has helped to shape us into a caring congregation.

"And that's a good thing."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 A9

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