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Conference explores hospitality and exile

By Murray MacAdam

Drawing its theme from a well-known biblical text, the diocese’s annual Outreach and Advocacy Conference, held Oct. 15 in Richmond Hill, affirmed how hospitality can strengthen our Christian witness and ease the alienation of “exile” felt by many in society.

In a powerful keynote address, the Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe, a priest in the Diocese of Quebec and a doctoral student at Trinity College, Toronto, focused on what the exile discussed in Psalm 137 can mean for people today. The psalmist wrote: “By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe speaks to an audience in a theatre.
The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe gives the keynote address at the 2016 Outreach and Advocacy Conference. Photos by Michael Hudson.

As Mr. Metcalfe noted, Psalm 137 is the song of an oppressed and displaced people who refuse to sing or play their instruments in a strange land. “It’s a song of lament, of resistance and a call for justice,” he said. “We should be uncomfortable with this song, because of its call for justice.”

He urged the conference participants to ask themselves, “How compelling is our faith in a world defined by displacement and exile?” He cited women and children who flee domestic violence, only to be turned away from packed shelters, and people, including children, being held at a nearby refugee detention centre, as examples of those impacted by exile. “What does our faith community have to say to the refugee family who might have to sleep on the streets tonight because there is no more room in the shelters?”

Many congregations have Out of the Cold programs to help feed the hungry, the sick and marginally housed. However, he asked, would our communities welcome those people into their choirs, their pulpits or into their congregations as equal members? “It’s not people we need to invite back to church on Sunday,” he said. “It’s the church we need to invite, back to its pilgrimage to the City of God.”

He noted how hospitality, while not a replacement for justice, is one way we can stand in solidarity with those denied justice. He cited two examples in the Diocese of Toronto where such hospitality is offered. The first, St. Stephen in-the-Fields, Toronto, stays open all night on Friday nights to provide a Safe Space drop-in program. It is staffed by volunteers who provide snacks and support to anyone needing a place of sanctuary. The second example is the new Seeds of Sanctuary program at St. James Cathedral, in which the Rev. Leigh Kern leads pilgrimages from the cathedral to local shelters and social service agencies as a first step in finding out how the church might work in solidarity with its neighbours. He noted that both of these ministries are based where these parishes are located.

Erinn Oxford stands in front of a whiteboard, holding a cell phone.
Erinn Oxford, pastor and director of The Dale Ministries, leads a workshop called “Poverty as a Form of Exile.”

Mr. Metcalfe wrapped up his talk with what he described as an “altar call” to hospitality, by encouraging conference participants to contact him if they’d be willing to offer temporary housing for refugees, working with the Romero House refugee ministry. He noted that anyone with space to offer could help meet this need for shelter in Toronto. This included churches, he added. “Maybe God has been emptying out our churches to prepare us not for closing our doors, but for opening them even wider,” he said. Two people later offered to provide space, while a third will inquire whether a refugee family could stay in her church building.

Conference workshops covered a variety of topics, often with a focus on reaching out to displaced people. A workshop titled “Poverty as a Form of Exile” heard how an innovative ecumenical ministry called The Dale Ministries, based in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, focuses on building relationships with local residents. The Dale has been called “a church without walls” because it has no building, with ministry taking place in coffee shops and other locations.

“Poverty is often rooted in a poverty of relationship,” said Erinn Oxford, pastor and director of the ministry. “We’re trying to say collectively this is our place, and endeavouring to build community.”  It supports low-income families and people with psychiatric issues, accompanies people to court, intervenes with landlords to support tenants, and helps in other ways. She shared a powerful example of building a relationship with an isolated person called Snakeman who was living in an illegal basement apartment with only four pet snakes for company. They were able to find him a good apartment, which he regards as a castle.

Community support cuts both ways, noted Ms. Oxford, telling a moving tale of how when her family issued an appeal to friends and family for financial support to cover costly medical treatment for her husband, she received a bag containing $78.26 from low-income community residents.

The Rev. Sherman Hesselgrave, incumbent of Holy Trinity, Trinity Square in Toronto, noted how some people criticize charity work unfairly. He responded that charitable efforts, such as a turkey dinner at a church, can represent “an incubation for community” for isolated individuals.

A group of adults sits in a circle as one leads the workshop.
Participants listen as Jenn McIntyre, director of Romero House, leads a workshop about refugees.

Hospitality for refugees was explored in a workshop led by Jenn McIntyre, director of Romero House, a Christian-based community of welcome for refugees and their families in Toronto which provides housing and companionship. Participants jointly read a booklet about the community’s mission, based on a belief that “as Christians we preach the meaning of the Gospel more with our lives than with our words.” Romero House strives to do that by living alongside refugees and helping them find permanent housing, and supporting them as they adjust to life in a strange land.

A workshop on advocacy led by Elin Goulden and the Rev. Kyn Barker, both of the diocese, faced head-on the comment sometimes voiced by Anglicans that “the church should stay out of politics.” They noted the biblical call for justice. Participants reflected on three Bible passages calling for justice: Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:16-17; and Micah 6:8. They were reminded that the Anglican Church’s Five Marks of Mission encourage Anglicans “to seek to transform unjust structures of society.” Paul Audley, a member of St Clement, Eglinton, noted that advocacy work remains a challenge in many parishes. “There’s a readiness to do good things, but when you start talking about advocacy, it’s a different matter, and especially when talking about changes at a governmental level. People have in effect sold their votes for tax cuts.”

Murray MacAdam is the diocese’s former Social Justice and Advocacy consultant.