Week of Prayer highlights partnerships for refugees

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Augusto Léon and his family found refuge in Ottawa with the help of the Mennonite Church in Colombia and Canada.Photo: Art Babych
Augusto Léon and his family found refuge in Ottawa with the help of the Mennonite Church in Colombia and Canada.Photo: Art Babych

Churches in the national capital area are sharing their long-term experience in refugee work with wider community groups as Syrian refugees continue to arrive in Canada.

The Rev. David Sherwin, of the Ottawa Presbytery of the United Church of Canada, said individual congregations are partnering with local community groups, nursing homes, sports teams and service clubs. “We also see local congregations partnering with other local congregations of other denominations, with other faith groups, and from other traditions entirely,” Sherwin said. “It’s good news as we unite our time, our energy and our money in order to welcome newcomers.”

Sherwin was speaking at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at the First Baptist Church January 24, organized by the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA). Instead of a homily, Sherwin outlined details of the refugee work being done by several churches in Ottawa and Gatineau. Also participating in the service were church leaders and representatives from more than 12 denominational churches in the area, including Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches.

Sherwin noted that the Anglican diocese of Ottawa has “opened up” the diocesan sponsorship agreement it has with the federal government. Doing so allows community groups to “reach out to people in need through the Anglican diocese and sponsor refugees across the city,” he said. The United Church’s Ottawa Presbytery has also extended its diocesan sponsorship agreement to include community groups.

Augusto Léon of a church-sponsored refugee family now living in Ottawa gave a first-hand account of how the Mennonite Church, both in Colombia and Canada, helped him, his wife and four children find refuge in Ottawa. Léon said he was threatened on several occasions in his homeland for his human rights work, and faced an assassination attempt in Bogota. His wife was also threatened. Fearing for their lives, the pair in 2008 sought help in leaving the country from a pastor at a Mennonite Church in Colombia. With the aid of the Mennonite community in Ottawa, the couple and their children became a church-sponsored refugee family.

Léon wiped tears from his face as he thanked the Mennonite Church, a member of the CCCA. “God bless you, and God bless Canada,” he said.

Pierre Chetelat, representing Ottawa Mennonite Refugee Assistance (OMRA) Shelter Alternatives Corporation, gave a briefing on the work of the church agency, which is run entirely on a volunteer basis. Along with the Ottawa Mennonite Church and other groups, OMRA works to provide safe, clean, affordable housing for refugees coming to settle in Ottawa. It was through OMRA that the Léon family found housing.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, started in 1908, is an international Christian ecumenical observance held annually from January 18-25. A different church in the national capital area hosts the service each year.

The First Baptist Church in Ottawa was founded in 1857, and was the first Baptist congregation in the city. Notables who have worshipped at the church near Parliament Hill include former prime minister John Diefenbaker.

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Art is the former editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa.

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