Last year a request came from the deacons in our church to sponsor Syrian refugees. That was the beginning of my journey into meeting complete strangers.
Thinking back on their arrival almost a year ago led me to a profound realization. We in the church preach about Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger into our midst. But that is a more complex task than we might imagine.
Sponsorship means accepting the idea of welcoming people you do not know, people with whom you have absolutely no connection. It means committing yourself to show the love of Christ, to give yourself unconditionally to complete strangers. You have no concept of their lives or where they come from. You don’t know their language or their faith life. You don’t even know what they look like.
It’s weird, really, to think of willingly stepping into a relationship with people you have never met. Accepting a stranger who stands outside of your gates is a risk. You risk your comfortable lifestyle and your reputation. You risk being hurt. But our church decided to take that risk together, believing God was directing us. Trusting God—who risked all for us—made it possible for us to do so.
Together we agreed to sponsor a family from Syria.
We had no information about the people we would sponsor. We were simply responding to a worldwide outcry for the plight of Syrian refugees. And so, with the blessing of our church, our sponsoring group prayed. We trusted that God would send us the family he wanted us to sponsor, and we agreed to support a family with our prayers, our time, and our finances.
How does one come to love a family from far away, people who have fled a terrible war and are living in a refugee camp? How was it possible for us to welcome complete strangers and agree to love them, find a home for them, and support them for a whole year?
It is a miracle of the human heart that in Christ we can do all things. No matter what obstacles are set before us, Christ prepares the way for us. He allows us to grow and learn and to be stretched far beyond our own limits and knowledge. Energized by the Lord for the task at hand, we stepped out in faith.
We agreed to raise enough money to cover the expenses for a family of four or five for a year. These funds were pledged in one day. We then notified World Renew, a relief agency supported by the Christian Reformed Church, that we had the funds available to financially support a family for a year.
In January, World Renew gave us the name of one family—a family of four. And with that tiny bit of information, we said yes. Now we had the names and ages of four people. Still strangers, yes, but upon learning their names, this family became a reality.
Then began a series of miracles. God provided a basement apartment close to the church. The cost of renting this place was below the market value. So we went ahead and rented the apartment even before knowing the arrival date of our family, trusting that this too would work out.
The second miracle was the renters living upstairs. Former missionaries in Pakistan, these people became a part of our journey.
A third miracle was that through this couple who lived upstairs, I met a Christian immigration worker even before we knew the family was coming. This person became an important resource for us after the family arrived.
We counted a fourth miracle when people in our church found halal food stores in our neighborhood. We asked the store owners for information on food and what to expect before the Syrians’ arrival. Becoming friends with Iraqi and Afghani store owners was another joy in our journey even before our family arrived.
Then came the call notifying us of the date of their arrival in Canada—in just four days. The big push was on to complete the makeover of a rather drab basement apartment into a home. Many people in our church family and from outside the church donated time and goods to set up a warm and welcoming space for them—a task that was completed the day they arrived. For this too, we thanked God.
Finally, we called the pastor and a number of people to come and pray for this new home and to bless this family. That evening the six of us headed to the airport and met our interpreter there. We held a handmade sign in Arabic to welcome the family. We went over a number of things we wanted the interpreter to ask the family, then headed on to wait at the luggage carousel area.
When the family arrived with a liaison from the airport, they saw the sign and came straight to us, extending hands to greet us in a sign of friendship. In so doing, they were accepting us as complete strangers!
Through the interpreter, the family told us they were hungry; they’d spent the whole day traveling from Montreal to Toronto to Vancouver without being offered any food. So we called the people who lived upstairs in their home to heat up the soup they had made. With complete trust, the family climbed into our van for the journey to their new home.
There we gathered: the family, the sponsors, the interpreter, and the people upstairs.
This family had been told they would be going to a hotel. What a surprise for them to find out via the interpreter that this was their new home! This was a new beginning for them—and for us. This was their miracle.
Eight months into this journey together, we can say the risk we took at the beginning was double-edged. On one side was our risk, and on the other side was the risk the family took in trusting us. In this equation, the equalizer is God. God has taken the “edge” out of it. We have come to love this family, and they in turn have come to trust and love us. We have gained, and they have gained.
We were “the stranger” to them and they were “the stranger” to us.
Did I know over a year ago that I would have a new family that would call me “mom”?
Did I know that I would sit in a women’s Arabic circle and learn about what happened to Christians in Iraq?
Did I know that slowly I would learn some Arabic as I was teaching our sponsored family words in English?
We have learned right alongside each other. And in the process, we have gained wonderful friends and family and so much more.
Before we were born, God loved us and sent his Son into the world to die for us so that we might have eternal life. He redeemed us with his blood.
So why should we fear the stranger who stands within our gates? Rather, we should fear God, and live.
- Have you ever met or do you know any refugees? If so, what did you learn and gain from that experience? Were you surprised by anything you learned?
- What comes to your mind when you think of “strangers”? Who, do you think, might count as a “stranger” in your own community?
- The author speaks about her fears and the risks she took in the process of welcoming a refugee family. What are your fears and discomforts in welcoming “strangers”? How might the author’s story and experience encourage you or help you with those fears?
- Besides sponsoring refugees, how else might we apply Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger?