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Church raises funds, asks Ottawa to loosen red tape for Syrian refugees

By Tali Folkins on September, 21 2015

As of September 21, St. Aidan's Anglican Church had raised roughly $35,000 for refugee sponsorship after 15 days of its "Red Tape Challenge." Photo: St. Aidan's Church Facebook page  


A London, Ont. church is raising money for Syrian refugees at lightning speed—thanks, at least partly, to a very Canadian household material.

As of Monday morning, St. Aidan’s Anglican Church had raised roughly $35,000 for refugee sponsorship after 15 days of its “Red Tape Challenge.” The appeal asks participants, after making their donations, to tear a piece of red duct tape and attach it to their vehicles, rural mailbox or other prominent place.

The point of the tape, says John Davidson, the St. Aidan’s parishioner who came up with the idea, is to pressure the federal government to reduce barriers to refugees in Canada – “to show Ottawa that yes, you can cut through red tape if you have the desire and the wherewithal, and you want to get the job done.”

The rector of St. Aidan’s, Canon Kevin George, says the appeal began after a sermon he preached on Sunday, September 6—the Sunday after the first publication of the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach.

“I preached that Sunday from James 2 about how we’re called to be a people who don’t just speak about faith but who act upon those things, particularly with respect to how James says that mercy triumphs over judgment,” George says.

Immediately after the service, Davidson approached him with the “red tape” concept. “He walked up to me and said, ‘I think I have an idea’,” George says.

Davidson is an accomplished fundraiser. In the mid-1990s, he pushed his son Jesse – afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy – across Ontario, then walked across Canada to raise money to fight the disease. Davidson then founded a charity, Jesse’s Journey, which has since raised more than $20 million.

“People tend to listen” to Davidson when he stands up and makes a plea to raise money for a cause, George says.

Parishioners were already feeling very moved by the photo of little Alan, and a flurry of fundraising ensued on the spot.

“I think we were at $16 or 17,000 thousand dollars by the end of leaving coffee hour,” George says. “I’ve been doing this for about 20 years – priestly ministry – and I can’t remember ever doing anything where people responded so quickly with so much.”

By the following Tuesday, Davidson had made and posted a “Red Tape Challenge” Facebook page, with a short video piece. By the following Sunday, the appeal had raised $30,000.

“We had people in our neighbourhood who don’t belong to our church take the challenge,” George says. One of these people, Gina Barber, donated $5,000; George let his congregation know about the donation, and said he hoped someone in the parish would match it—which they did.

Barber says she knows George from a campaign for a federal election candidate they have both been working on. She had been thinking about how to help Syrian refugees, and had been talking about how to do that at a social gathering recently.

"That was on the weekend, and on the Monday morning, Kevin came in and we starting talking," she says. "He started talking about this fund that his church was starting. And I just said, I'm in."

Why the Red Tape Challenge, when there are so many other ways to support refugees from Syria and elsewhere?
"I tell you, it was Kevin," she says. "He's that kind of person who is able to, I guess you would say, live the gospel in the real world, and address its issues – and in a very innovative, and engaging, and earthy kind of way."

Barber also liked that the campaign isn't just about raising money.

"It's one thing to raise money and to give money for the support once they get here, but they have to get here first—and that looks like the hard part in many respects," partly because of the difficulty created by Canadian screening processes. "We've got to do something about that," she says.

Initially planning to sponsor one family, the parish is now considering two, Davidson says.

Taking part in the challenge is easy, Davidson says, because so many places of worship are trying to raise funds for refugees. Donors can simply slip their donation, enclosed in an envelope, into a church mail slot.

“There are more churches than Tim Hortons and they’ve got better parking,” he says. “So stick it in there, just write the name of the church—for me, I was making mine to St. Aidan’s, and I wrote ‘St. Aidan’s Church—refugee fund.’ They’ll know what to do with it.”

Davidson says he hopes the challenge, in addition to raising money, will help encourage Ottawa to speed up the resettlement of refugees, so that many more can be allowed into Canada.

“I’m all for a bit of scrutiny to find out who you’re getting,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Wow we’ve got to do better than that, when you look at Germany and the numbers they’re taking.’” Germany is expected to resettle at least 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

George says he and other organizers are heartened by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s announcement this weekend of plans to, in his own words, “cut red tape” and speed up the processing of refugees. Ottawa will undertake new measures that will allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted by September 2016, instead of the federal government’s promise in January of doing so within three years, Alexander says.

But organizers think much more can still be done, George says. He points to a recent call on Ottawa by retired general Rick Hillier to bring in 50,000 refugees over the next three months—a number that is really not as large as it may seem, George says, given Canada’s size.

“Fifty thousand represents just a little more than what we would put in a Blue Jays game—right across the nation,” he says.

Participants in the Red Tape Challenge are invited to post photos or video of their own torn red tape on Facebook or other social media, Davidson says. But he’s less enthusiastic about the idea of people sharing other people’s Red Tape Challenge posts without actually taking part.

“I said when it comes to sharing it – don’t,” he says. “Don’t share unless you’re going to do something yourself, because this is important. When it comes to sharing video stuff, this isn’t a cat playing a piano we’re talking about—this is real people in real trouble.

People are sharing things constantly ... but are they actually acting on anything? That’s the question. And I have found in my past adventures action speaks a lot louder than words.”

George and Davidson say they hope the Red Tape Challenge will be picked up by other faith leaders in the London area, or even nationwide.

“Wouldn’t it be great if every church in this country was ready and able to raise that kind of money and say, ‘we’re standing by, send us people who need the help and we’ll help them?,” Davidson says. “And I think you’ll find a few years down the road these people are great contributors to the country.”

 Editor's Note: This story has been updated with comments from Gina Barber, who donated $5,000 to the Red Tape Challenge. 

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By Tali Folkins| September, 21 2015

About the Author

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.  His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer

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