BY CONOR BROWN
On a Sunday last November at the Cherryfield Baptist Church near Moncton, N.B., Steve Dempster preached a sermon on the subject of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. He related the text to the Syrian refugee crisis.
For the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.
Now Dempster and his wife Judy are part of a group at the church waiting for their sponsored Syrian refugee family to arrive.
Dempster, a professor of religious studies at Crandall University, was speaking at the church as a replacement for a pastor who had recently stepped down. After his sermon that day, he and some parishioners decided to sponsor a family.
Most refugees coming into Canada fall into one of two categories: Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs) and Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs). The former receive aid solely from the federal government under the Resettlement Assistance Programme (RAP). Eligible for the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), GSRs are provided with health care services funded by taxpayers. The GSRs are provided with temporary accommodation upon arrival into the country, given help with finding permanent housing and receive general orientation to Canadian society.
The Government of New Brunswick has said it intends to bring about 1,500 GSRs to the province, and that number remains concrete. It is more difficult to track the number of PSRs relocating to New Brunswick due to the variety possible sponsorship programs available.
One is a Community Sponsor (CS), unaffiliated with the federal government, such as a church or a business.
There is also what is called a Group of Five (G5), made up of five Canadian citizens or permanent residents who, according to the federal government “must agree to give emotional and financial support to the refugee(s) for the full sponsorship period – usually one year.”
Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs), like the Baptist churches, receive partial funding from the government and are required to perform the same procedures that are in place to resettle GSRs.
“I asked the question what can we do as a church to help,” Dempster says. “We ended up forming a committee of about 10 people who are just amazing. We all brought our unique contributions together to make this thing happen.”
The largest of those contributions came from Dave and Valerie Henderson, who after hearing the sermon, decided they needed to help. The Hendersons returned to the church with a plan to convert a building on their property into a small house suitable for a refugee family of four.
Renovations and fundraising began right away with Dave Henderson taking on the majority of the construction by himself. With a short window of opportunity to raise the $10,000 required to sponsor a family, the church had time to plan for only two events, a Christmas dinner, and a Valentines Day tea.
“November and December we really went all out,” says Judy Dempster, who led the committee. “We really just stepped out in faith and said let’s do this, then everything fell in place better than we could have ever imagined.”
As word spread throughout the community that the church would be sponsoring a family of four, a mother in her 20s, a father in his 30s and a boy and girl under 5, more and more people became interested in joining the church’s efforts. Donations of food, clothing and various services began to flood in.
Construction on the home was finished by early January and refurnished almost entirely with donated items including sofas, tables and light stands. The women of the community stocked the closets with summer and winter clothes for the children, and curtains for the house were handmade by a member of the church. The bright, open concept home has new dark wood cabinets and doors which were also made by Henderson. They outfitted the one-bedroom home with top of the line appliances.
“They’re so sweet,” Judy Dempster says, referring to the Hendersons. “They even want to put in a little patio so the children can play and the parents can sit out there in the summer.”
The Cherryfield church is part of the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches that is in the process of helping many families that are fleeing war torn Syria. Spanning across 450 parishes throughout Atlantic Canada, the convention is part of 100 sponsorship agreement holders across the country. Their efforts to welcome refugee families has already resulted in the sponsorship of 50 families to date and it intends to double that number by the end of 2016.
The churches are connected with refugee families that have previously been screened for clearance into the country. In January of 2016, the federal government released a list of 100 potential refugee families per week, but as of the end of February, there has yet to be a new one released.
Jacqueline Derrah is the co-ordinator of intercultural ministries for the convention.
“On a good week, we could get two to three families,” she says. “When the list comes out, within sixty seconds everyone on that list is spoken for, there is never any shortage of people that are willing to sponsor.”
There is limited information about the family given to a sponsoring group. Only the number of people, their genders and their ages are displayed on the list. Once a family has been chosen by the convention, they have two days for their application to be sent, processed and accepted federally. Once accepted, the sponsoring group receives more information on their family’s language, level of education and potential health issues. The time varies for the actual resettlement process with some cases arriving very quickly while others can wait upwards of three to four months for their family to arrive.
“We’re often only given 48 hours notice before a family is due to arrive.” says Derrah. “This results in sponsoring groups paying months of rent for an empty apartment.”
While preparing for their incoming family, the members of the church were also looking for a space to construct a new church building as their current one was becoming too old and cramped for the growing congregation. After hearing what the Cherryfield church was doing to help the refugees, a neighbouring church came to their aid. Their church was capable of accommodating the large number of people who wanted to purchase tickets to Cherryfield’s fundraisers, and have now helped them find a piece of land suitable for construction of the new church.
The Cherryfield church has hired a translator for the family to ease the burden on Moncton’s already swamped multicultural association. The committee has arranged a job laying tile flooring for the husband if he is interested.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing experience, stepping out in faith because of the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Steve Dempster says. “The consequence is that we can make a difference in the lives of people all around us.”
Video by Sean McCullum.