By Mark Chapman
Syrian refugees are in the news but Canadian churches have been developing relationships with immigrants since immigrants first arrived on the shores of what is now Canada. The recent needs of Syrian refugees and the ongoing diversification of Canadian society have brought immigrants concerns to the attention of churches across Canada.
“What was once true only in Toronto and Vancouver is now true in places like Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and small communities in New Brunswick and places like that… These are communities that have been stable and white and are now being infused with color and accent. The huge cities weren’t ready for it 15 years ago, and the churches in the small towns are not ready for it now. We need to help them take on the challenge that’s before them.”
A recent project on the Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration aimed to help meet this need. The good news is that most churches already have the resources they need to make a difference.
Canadian churches are happy to have immigrants come to their churches but they sometimes know little about how to help immigrants establish themselves in Canada or in the church. The Role of Churches study identified some factors that contribute to churches meeting this need. These include having a vision for working with immigrants, finding leaders, recognizing the many ways churches respond, and the relational skills churches already have.
“Hospitality means loving the neighbors, not just those very close to us, but especially in context of the Good Samaritan, loving those who are in need.”
A church’s intentional vision for working with immigrants contributes to their effectiveness. Intentionality starts in many different places:
- a theological understanding of the biblical mandate to serve the stranger and to be hospitable.
- a desire to grow and revitalize one’s church.
- shared experience of immigrating.
- awareness of changing demographics.
- friendships with immigrants.
Vision arises out of the circumstances of each individual church and directs how each church allocates its time and resources.
To implement a vision churches need people who step in to lead. Some of these are in paid positions but most are lay people with a heart for newcomers. Leadership needs to reflect the diversity of those who are being served and those leaders need training in intercultural competence.
Churches are sometimes overwhelmed by what needs to be done. Few churches are equipped to walk immigrants through the details of settlement. They don’t have to be. Most of the churches we talked to focused on one particular area of need according to the gifting in their congregation. Examples included English conversation classes, services in immigrants’ languages, accompanying people to appointments, food banks, pot luck dinners, pairing established Canadian families with immigrant families, and feeding international students. Churches did what they could according to their gifting and resources but also established partnerships with other organizations (e.g., other churches, government agencies) that could meet needs that were beyond their capacity.
“As a newcomer myself I can tell you that without people around you to encourage you, to help you feel like you’re not lost… People around you who care and can direct you; it’s a very long walk. And that is the experience of people who come without church support.”
You may have noticed a common theme in this discussion of vision, leadership and church roles: relationships. This is a strength of churches. They meet a need rarely met by formal immigrant services. Immigrants want people who care about them and listen to them, people who will befriend them, and have them into their homes for meals. Churches already know how to do this.
So what can churches do to help immigrants settle and integrate into Canadian society? They can pay attention to the people around them, they can act according to their gifting, and they can love immigrants to the best of their ability. A participant described working with newcomers as a way of “living life together” to create “a world of welcome.” All Canadian churches have what they need to serve immigrants and invite all Canadian residents into living life together.
“I have often put it in terms of asking the question – who are we willing to become in terms of character and purpose in order that the newcomer knows that they are welcome? … I believe that in North America today, an awakening [of a vision to work with immigrants and refugees] cannot happen unless our characters change. And our character has to be a welcoming character.”
Dr. Mark Chapman is Assistant Professor of Research Methods and Assistant Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Tyndale Seminary (Toronto, ON). His current research examines the role of churches in immigrant integration and settlement and networks among Canadians who are trying to start new churches. Dr. Chapman serves as Lead Research Consultant for the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre. He has an active role as a lay leader at Hazelglen Alliance Church in Kitchener-Waterloo. This article is adapted from the research reports coming out of The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration project.
The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration project was a national research partnership intended to better equip church groups across Canada (whether congregations or denominations) to help immigrants and refugees settle and integrate into Canadian society. With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the project was facilitated by the Centre for Community Based Research in collaboration with ten different partners including universities, Christian denominational offices and interdenominational networks.