What is St. Oscar Romero calling us to do? | Jenn McIntyre | Nov 3, 2019
Thank you so much for welcoming me here this morning. It is a treat to be here at St. Aiden’s with your community. I have heard a lot about this parish over the years—about the good work that you do in serving your neighbourhood and beyond. I know that you are a very active parish and that you have done a number of refugee sponsorships. I am here to share more about the experience of knowing refugee claimants, which is a little bit different than sponsorship. So it is good to be with you.
I come to you today bringing greetings from Romero House, the place that I call my home. Romero House is a community made up of refugee claimants, former refugees, neighbours, volunteers, and all sorts of folk who are striving to live together in a way that celebrates our common humanity. More concretely, we are a collection of four houses in the West End of Toronto, where committed core team members and volunteers from multiple countries live together as neighbours and companions to families seeking refugee protection in Canada. Unlike sponsored refugees, claimants come to Canada on their own, often knowing no one and face a very complex process. That is where we come in. Refugee families, who live at Romero House for one year, receive support in navigating the immigration process, accompaniment in settling into a new life in Canada and a community of celebration and solidarity.
Our name, Romero House, came to us from the tiny country of El Salvador, where there was a priest, an Archbishop, named Oscar Romero. In the midst of incredible violence that targeted people on the margins—farmers, indigenous people, students, those with very little—Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out boldly against acts of repression by the government as well as responses of violence from armed groups. He read out the names of the disappeared every day. And his voice was broadcast across the country over the radio station of the Archdiocese. In 1980, Romero was gunned down by a paramilitary group for his public witness to the injustices happening in his country. He has remained a symbol of hope for the people of El Salvador and an inspiration for human rights activists all over the world. When a small group of people in Toronto gathered in 1991 to come up with a name for their newly born community, Romero House seemed like a perfect fit.
We have spent 28 years reflecting on the responsibility of carrying the name “Romero.” And one year ago, we were called again to contemplate the significance for our community when Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero a Saint. We have spent much of the past year with St. Romero asking: what does it mean for us to be faithful to the radical calls for peace and justice in the Gospel? I am honoured to contemplate this with you today, two weeks after the one-year anniversary of St. Romero’s canonization, and as the church celebrates All Saints Day. What a perfect moment to be here and to share with you about our efforts to walk in the way of our patron.
I have been part of the Romero House community for the past 10 years and I have been profoundly shaped by the refugees whom I have encountered as my neighbours. I live at Romero House---in a tiny apartment on the first floor of our house on Dorval Road. Below me lives a family from Colombia, above me a family from Iran and on the third floor are two of our interns---young people who have given a year or two of their lives in service of Romero House. The particular collection of people that I live with right now is one of the most amazing groups of neighbours I have had—sharing food, childcare and responsibility for taking care of our home. To give you a sense of this, I will share an image from Halloween last Thursday. The kids in our home returned with bags full of candy and sopping wet costumes. After they dried off, we all gathered in the living room to a feast of BBQ’d Persian chicken. Aram, who is from Iran and lives upstairs, wanted to mark their first Halloween with a generous act of hospitality for everyone in our home.
The vision of Romero House is centered on the belief that we are, in some profound way, brothers and sisters with the refugees that we encounter. We are called to embrace, to trust and to offer mutual care. We call this “Our Way of Being”—it guides our relationships and our work. I believe fully in this vision. However, I know that we are a small community and not reflective of the wider opinions held by the people living within the borders of this place that we call Canada.
We just finished an election, I imagine some of you paid attention to it. For the first time since I have been engaged in politics, the border was an election issue. I am talking about the Quebec border with New York, where we have seen an increase in people walking into Canada in recent years. This increase coincides with overall higher numbers of people making refugee claims in this country. Some of this might be explained by the 2016 American election and anti-migrant policies in that country, some of it might be explained by the growing number of conflicts around the world pushing people to flee for their lives. Whatever the cause, there are more people seeking safety in Canada today than two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. And the reactions are varied.
There are some incredible stories of people who live along the border in Quebec offering warm clothing, food and drink to the people arriving in Canada. And there are also stories of groups of passionate people travelling to the border in large numbers with picket signs to protest an “invasion” of illegal migrants. Just as a side note, entering Canada in any way to make a claim for protection is never illegal.
There is something about people showing up at the doorstep of a country unannounced that can elicit a response of fear: fear of different belief systems, fear of someone taking resources away from those who are already here, fear of being taken advantage of, and simply fear of the unknown. I believe that this reaction, of mistrust, comes from a place of great insecurity and from having had few previous encounters with people who might be known as “the other.”
In the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus is talking to a crowd of people who know exactly what it is like to be feared, to be other-ed and to be rejected. Right before the Gospel text that was read to you this morning, Luke describes the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking. It is so important to know who the audience is, as it shapes how we hear these recognizable words. The three preceding verses say:
He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people seeking healing. People with diseases. People who are unclean. People who are excluded, seen as unworthy, unloved. The gospels are full of illustrations of how these people are treated and pushed to the margins of society. Before Jesus in this Sermon on the Plain are people who have travelled incredible distances seeking something—to be well, to belong, to have life again.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
We might be more familiar with the Beatitudes in Matthew, which there are more of and are of more of a spiritual nature---“Blessed are you poor in spirit, blessed are you who hunger for righteousness.” These blessings in Luke are more practical. I resonate with these. I am a fairly practical person. And for the crowd in front of Jesus, people on the margins of society, I imagine this is an incredibly hopeful set of blessings. It takes them seriously. It takes their bodies, their immediate needs as well as their spirits seriously. And rather than the rejection they have faced from their communities, they hear from Jesus: Blessed are you. Who are poor. Who hunger. Who weep. Who are hated, excluded, insulted. You belong. You will be satisfied. You will laugh.
When I hear this, it is not at all a stretch to imagine that Jesus is talking to a crowd of refugees. Who are poor. Who hunger. Who weep. Who are hated, excluded, insulted.
I encounter people everyday who are forced to leave their homes for many different reasons—family violence, gender identity, human rights work. Many of the people I meet were fairly comfortable in their lives before they were upended. They had good jobs, were able to provide for their children, had solid communities around them. Then something happened that made them flee. Maybe they were targeted by a local gang or political opposition group. They heard Canada was a safe place and they sought haven here. And for the first time in their lives, they find themselves below the poverty line, not sure where their next meal will come from. They enter into this unknown land having lost everything they built for themselves, having spent most of their savings to get here, having been separated from the people they love. They arrive and seek out ways to survive, to take care of their family. If they are paying attention, they hear messages around them that they are illegal because they walked across the border, that they are responsible for the shelter crisis in Toronto, that they are taking advantage of Canada’s generous social welfare system—a system they did not even know existed until they landed here. They who are poor, who hunger, who weep, who are hated, excluded, insulted.
When the stranger, the refugee, shows up unannounced and knocks on the door of your life, what do you do?
What would St. Oscar Romero do? What DOES St. Oscar Romero do?
I believe that St. Oscar Romero points us to the beatitudes. He reminds us that God’s blessing is upon this stranger who is before you, this stranger whose photo of them crossing into Quebec at Roxham road you see on your social media feed, this stranger who you never see but you know is among you seeking shelter in our crowded city. These refugees, these “others” come with stories that you will probably never hear, never come to know. Stories that would surprise you, that would break your heart, that would make you realize that being a refugee is not an identity but a set of circumstances that too could happen to you.
I met a family a few years ago from Venezuela. The parents are journalists. The mother told me once about one of her first assignments as a young writer in the 90s. She was doing a story on Colombian refugees who had fled to Venezuela, writing about their stories of leaving everything behind to seek safety. 25 years later, she left everything in a country she loved to flee Canada with her family. This same woman pulled her kids out of their final year of high school. She left behind ailing parents, family members with not enough food or medicine to meet their needs. But it was the only option after the decision she had taken to speak out against government corruption. Being a refugee was something she had only known to happen to other people in other places. She never thought it could happen to her.
This past Friday, we held a workshop for newly arrived claimants about how to prepare for their refugee hearing. At the end of the session I met a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I learned that he worked for more than 10 years in South Africa educating migrants and refugees on their rights. Now here he was, a victim of xenophobic violence in South Africa and refugee in Canada being educated on his rights. He never thought it could happen to him.
I believe that St. Oscar Romero would say, is saying, to these people who have lost everything and are still suffering greatly because of it, you belong---yours is the Kingdom, you will be satisfied, you will laugh. You will be whole.
And I believe that St. Oscar Romero would speak, is calling us to speak, to those in positions of power in this country, imploring them to follow the commands of the Gospel—to love your neighbour, to comfort the one who mourns, to care for the least of these. When we see cuts to important services like legal aid or social assistance or we hear politicians blaming refugees for bigger problems that plague our society and communities, St. Oscar Romero calls us to raise our voices and to act.
For instance, tomorrow is the first day of a very important challenge taking place at the Federal Court of Canada. Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Council of Churches (of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a part) are challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States. This agreement prevents people coming from the United States to make refugee claims in Canada at regular ports of entry. It is based on the assumption that the United States is a safe country for refugees. If any of you have been reading the news in the past couple of years, you will have seen images of children in cages who have been separated from their families, of mandatory detention of families, of people forced to wait in dangerous migrant centres in Mexico for their hearings in the United States. I could spend all morning describing to you why the United States is NOT a safe place for refugees. We have the opportunity as a people of faith to stand up for what is right, to welcome our brothers and sisters who are in danger, to live out the beatitudes. We are called to speak with barely a fraction of the risk that St. Oscar Romero did every time he stood at the pulpit.
Beyond raising your voice, there are many ways in which you can follow the call of St. Romero and support the work that we do. If you are looking for direction, come and talk to me after the service. Beyond that, I encourage you to dig into the Gospels. Each morning, our live-in core team gathers in a little garage that has been converted into a prayer room and we read the Gospel together. We read the radical teachings of Jesus and we try as best as we can to make sense of them. As one member of our community says, it is amazing how at Romero House the words on the page so often get up and walk. And we try to follow them as they do. And we invite you, your church, to join us in our pursuit.