Helping immigrants to feel at home

Helping immigrants feel at home in their new home

In 2003, the major superiors of religious communities in the Archdiocese of Toronto began to talk about the possibility of collaborative ministry. Was there something that they could do together?

A needs assessment surfaced three areas of particular concern in the archdiocese: youth, seniors and refugees. The leaders of the religious congregations had a town-hall meeting to discuss these needs and determine which, if any, they could focus on. A significant majority were drawn to the plight of the area’s refugees. Over 50% of Toronto’s population was born somewhere other than Toronto. Toronto truly is a land of immigrants.

The major superiors formed a committee to further explore the issues of refugees and immigrants in Toronto. They wanted to find out what work was already being done, and where there might be unmet needs that these religious – together – might be able to address.

At the same time, Fr. Peter McKenna, SCJ, (pictured above) was in the midst of a sabbatical, during which he lived in a bachelor apartment in Toronto. “It was a five-building complex, each of which had 17 stories and approximately 3,000 inhabitants,” said Fr. Peter, who now is a member of the High Park SCJ community.

Approximately a third of the building’s residents were senior citizens, a third were immigrants or refugees and a third were students. “But I noticed that many of the immigrants were leaving. The owner wanted to convert the apartment building into a condominium development. To do so, he was pricing the current tenants out of their homes.” Tenants –– especially the immigrants and refugees –– felt frustrated and powerless as they sought a way to affordably live in the city. “Economic apartheid and gentrification were just one of many challenges they faced,” said Fr. Peter.

Fr. Peter talked about the plight of his immigrant neighbors with members of the SCJs’ regional council in Canada. “My sabbatical was coming to an end but Fr. John van den Hengel, SCJ, our regional superior, invited me to consider staying at the building to offer a Gospel presence.”

Working with the tenants, Fr. Peter organized prayer services and focus groups as a way of mutual support to address a variety of issues, including the growing rental costs.

“The SCJs’ Canadian Region has always had a strong commitment to immigrants and refugees,” said Fr. Peter. “It goes back to our roots.” The Priests of the Sacred Heart first came to Canada to minister to French and later Dutch-speaking immigrants. Today, that tradition continues in a variety of ministries, including outreach to Indonesian Catholics in Toronto and Montréal. Umat Katholik Indonesia –– a community of Indonesian Catholics in Toronto –– began in 1980 and has now grown to almost 3,000 members. Fr. Aegi Warsito, SCJ, is the most recent of several Indonesian SCJs who have been on loan to the Canadian Region to minister to UKI.

Fr. Peter’s ministry to refugees at the apartment building, coupled with the region’s historical commitment to immigrants, made him a perfect match for a newly opened job in a newly developed ministry: “Becoming Neighbours (Canadian spelling) Joint Apostolic Ministry.”

Becoming Neighbours is the result of the research and dialogue among Toronto religious. The second half of the title –– Joint Apostolic Ministry – may seem cumbersome, but it is significant. “This ministry marks the first time that men and women religious have come together in Toronto to work in a joint, collaborative ministry,” said Fr. Peter.

Hired in 2006, Fr. Peter is the first director of the ministry.

“Presence, prayer, friendship and solidarity are the underpinnings of Becoming Neighbours,” said Fr. Peter. Companions –– trained sisters, priests and brothers from the 19 participating religious communities – are paired with immigrants. Meeting once a week, the companions assess the needs of the newcomer and then focus on ways in which to help the immigrant acclimatize to his or her new home. Needs can range from ESL assistance, to family issues, to legal concerns to even a quick course on how to use the city’s extensive public transportation system.

“Sometimes, simply having someone who believes in you helps you believe in yourself,” said Fr. Peter. “We don’t tell people what to do; we accompany them, we help them dwell in possibilities. And, we realize that the relationship isn’t just one way.”

In many other areas of the country such programs are called “Welcoming the Stranger.” Fr. Peter emphasized that the name “Becoming Neighbours” was chosen to “enhance our sense of ‘mutuality,’” he said. “It’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are mutual neighbors who can learn from and be enhanced by each other.”

There are currently 81 companions and nine in preparation. Another 143 people (again, members of the supporting religious communities of men and women) are “prayer partners.” These are often older religious who are not physically able to do the work of companions, but who daily pray a “Prayer of Solidarity” for the needs of those served by Becoming Neighbours and for those who are a part of the ministry.

Besides their one-on-one meetings with newcomers, companions gather monthly in one of seven theological reflection circles, as well as for on-going formation sessions. In the theological reflection circles “the companions talk about their experiences in light of their faith,” said Fr. Peter.

The full group –– companions, newcomers and prayer partners –– are invited to a “Celebrating Canada Day” with music, dancing and – of course – lots of food.

When asked how long the companion partnership lasts, Fr. Peter said simply, “As long as it needs to; just as God does not abandon us, we do not abandon our friends.” As they get more acclimatized to life in a new country, the partnership often comes to an end, but generally not the relationship with Becoming Neighbours. Even newcomers who have moved out of the Toronto area have continued to stay in touch with the staff at Becoming Neighbours. That includes those who have been deported from Canada.

“And that is heart-wrenching,” said Fr. Peter, who spends much of his time accompanying newcomers to their hearings at the Refugee Court. “But we still hear from those who have gone back to their home country; they keep in touch.”

Becoming Neighbours hopes to expand its role beyond one-on-one accompaniment to systemic change. Fr. Peter, one of four members of a refugee advisory committee for the Archdiocese of Toronto, is now exploring ways in which Becoming Neighbours can be a catalyst for change, linking with other groups to address legislative issues related to immigration and refugee status. “There needs to be more justice in the legislative process,” said Fr. Peter.

When asked what he enjoys about his work, Fr. Peter says that “it is the people, they are incredible,” he said. “The Gospel values of presence, prayer and solidarity are really the basis of what Becoming Neighbors is about.

“It is also so much of what we –- as SCJs in Canada – are about as well.”