Bob McKeon


April 4, 2016

The desperate situation of many refugees has been in the media now for several months. The numbers are overwhelming. The image of the body of a three-year-old boy on a Mediterranean beach caught people's hearts and spirits around the world.

Supported by widespread public concern, the newly-elected Liberal federal government acted quickly on its campaign promise, expediting refugee processing times, and rapidly increased the number of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.

Encouraged by Pope Francis, the Canadian bishops last October published a special message calling on "Catholics everywhere to organize together and sponsor refugees, to the extent that they are able." Many parishes in Alberta and across Canada responded enthusiastically.

In a national media interview, Basilian Father Glenn McDonald, chaplain of the St. Joseph's College worshipping community, told of how his community members responded quickly and generously with substantial financial donations and extensive personal volunteer commitments vastly exceeding what was initially expected. I suspect this has been the experience of many parishes.

Then the interviewer asked Father Glenn if this unprecedented mobilization in his worshipping community on behalf of the sponsorship of Syrian refugees meant that others in distress and urgent need for assistance would be neglected.

Father Glenn's response was excellent. He said the congregation had learned something unexpected about their expanded personal and community capacity for compassion, and that he hoped this could overflow, not only to supporting additional refugee sponsorships, but also to serving others in urgent need.

This will be a key challenge. A Globe and Mail article a few weeks ago quoted Martin Mark, refugee coordinator for the Toronto Archdiocese, speaking of the reluctance of would-be parish sponsors to support non-Syrian refugees in desperate situations.

Mark said passionately, "As a human being, it's disturbing for me. We don't sponsor because we want to be happy; we sponsor because we want to save lives."

He continued, "I hope that it is not just a moment of fashion. We have the capacity for both, it's not either/or."

One of my university students at St. Joseph's College was faced with a similar question. We had just been studying Catholic social teaching on immigration and refugees in class.


She met a homeless man on an Edmonton street talking about all the attention being given to refugees from afar, and then he asked, "What about us? Will anyone care to respond to our situation?"

She brought this question back to class. The best I could say was to repeat Father Glenn's response about newly discovered, overflowing compassion and generosity.

There is another dimension to this reflection. Of the 25,000 Syrian refugees the prime minister has promised to bring to Canada, 10,000 are privately sponsored and 15,000 government sponsored.


It is now being reported that the private refugees, such as those being supported by parishes, are adapting to life in Canada much quicker than those being sponsored by the government.

This shows up with success in moving into homes, jobs, English language skills and building community networks. The personal dimension matters. The community dimension matters.

There is something transformative and supportive with an organized, resourceful, Spirit-filled community of care, filled with compassion and generosity. This transformation I suspect can be mutual, between the sponsors and the refugee families.

I wonder if these lessons of being part of supportive communities for refugees and their families can overflow to supporting others living in isolation and marginalization in our midst - our internal refugees displaced from home, family and past community such as those transitioning from homelessness, incarceration, trauma or recovering from addictions.

These efforts are part of what Pope Francis calls "restoring solidarity to the heart of human culture."


The Canadian bishops state: "Welcoming those whose lives are marked by hardships, poverty and uncertainty is not only a moral duty, it is a constitutive act of the Church's life."

While the bishops say this in the context of supporting refugees, I wonder if this message shouldn't really be expanded in scope. Then my student could have a truly helpful response to the homeless man she encountered on an Edmonton street.

Our generous and compassionate response to Syrian refugees in crisis is necessary and very important, but it does not have to be "either-or." It truly can be "both-and."

(Bob McKeon: