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Lutheran staff ‘walk the walk’ with refugee sponsorship

By Tali Folkins on December, 04 2015


Syrian children from the Kobani district of Syria play in a refugee camp in the Suruc district of Turkey, near the border with Syria, Oct. 20, 2015. Photo: Orlok/Shutterstock


Staff at three Canadian Lutheran organizations are taking direct action when it comes to sponsoring refugees.

Last week, Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC) announced that employees at their national offices were partnering together to raise money to sponsor a refugee family of four from Syria.

The sponsorship drive began in late October at CLWR, says Tom Brook, the agency’s director of community relations.

“CLWR decided to walk the walk,” Brook says. “We are sponsorship agreement holders and have resettled thousands of refugees in partnership with Lutheran churches and community groups over the years. We decided it was time for us to do the same as a staff.”

It wasn’t long before employees at ELCIC, who share office space with CLWR, had gotten wind of the idea, and it soon started to catch on.

At this point, CLWR decided to send an invitation also to employees at LCC, the second-largest Lutheran body in Canada after ELCIC.

“They were in touch with us and asked our staff if we would want to be involved, and actually the response was very enthusiastic here,” says the Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, president of LCC. “So I’m quite happy that the staff persons of all three entities will operate a little bit as a sponsoring family.”

Although the two churches both sit on and fund CLWR and work together on military chaplaincy, scouting and other undertakings, it’s been some time since they last began a new undertaking together, says ELCIC National Bishop Susan Johnson.

“I think it’s huge,” she says. “This is the first new area of collaboration that we’ve done together in a long, long time and so I’m really excited about what that means for the state of the relationship between our churches.”

CLWR is now doing the paperwork to sponsor a family of four Syrians currently living in Jordan—a father, mother and two children, Brook says.

To sponsor a family of four in Winnipeg, CLWR would normally raise $20,000 plus about $7,000 in “start-up” costs—furniture and other items that a family would need when first settling in, he says. More than half of the $20,000 has already been raised—and, on top of that, a Lutheran landlord (who prefers to remain anonymous) has come forth to donate an entire year of free rent.

With the landlord’s donation, Brook says, “we probably already raised as much as we will need, but we’ll raise the full amount regardless.”

Staff members were invited to donate whatever they felt they could afford, either in cash or in kind, he says. It’s expected they will also provide emotional support to the family when it arrives and help the family connect with language and job training and other settlement services.

Since the refugees will likely arrive under the blended visa sponsorship agreement with the federal government, Ottawa will probably contribute some settlement money for the family also, Brook says.

No date for the arrival of the family has been set yet.

The staff sponsorship drive fits in nicely with ELCIC’s commitment to—among other things—sponsor 500 refugees by 2017, year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, says Johnson. “By sponsoring refugees locally, we’re also participating in our own Reformation Challenge and doing it with our other Lutheran counterparts in Canada, so I think that’s cool.”

The joint drive is also very important as a symbol of the two Lutheran bodies’ willingness to work together, she says.

Can it be taken as a harbinger of complete rapprochement between the two bodies?

“I think that would be way too far to go at this point,” Johnson says. “I think we’re just always happy for signs of collaboration and ways that we can act out as the wider body of Christ.”

“There are profound theological differences between the two Lutheran churches, and this is one reason why we don’t have one Lutheran church in Canada,” Bugbee, for his part, says. “But at the same time, you will have some folks who will think, ‘Well, because we have disagreements about theology there isn’t a chance to do anything together.’ But we’re quite convinced that being involved in these humanitarian projects accomplishes a number of important things.”

Apart from showing the ability of Christians to do good work together despite their doctrinal differences, the sponsorship drive also “models out” for LCC congregations that their leaders and staff have a personal commitment to the actions they’re recommending, Bugbee says.

“We’ll be able to speak with some first-hand conviction and experience when we’re trying to hold this up in front of parishes and convince them to get involved with these projects also,” he says. “I am indeed hoping that this collaboration will be the start of widespread interest and action on the part of Lutheran parishes and pastors across Canada to get involved in the business of refugee sponsorship.” 

ELCIC and LCC both originated in the late 1980s; before then, they had both belonged to Lutheran organizations headquartered in the U.S. Whereas ELCIC enjoys a full communion partnership with the Anglican Church of Canada, LCC practices closed communion. The two bodies also differ on the interpretation of Scripture and other matters.

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By Tali Folkins| December, 04 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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