It all started with a series of sermons.
Initially, the Rev. Canon Rob Hurkmans just wanted to challenge his congregation at St. James and St. Brendan Anglican Church in the small Lake Erie city of Port Colborne, Ont., to think differently about what it means to be rich. He never expected his discussion of 1 Timothy 6:17-in which Paul commands “those who are rich in this present world” to be “rich in good deeds” -to result in a campaign of giving that would raise over $33,000 toward sponsoring a refugee family to come to Canada.
His goal had simply been for people to come to an understanding that they are the rich ones, “so when we come across pieces of Scripture like that addressing rich people, it’s talking about us, so we need to take it seriously,” he said. “We always think that rich is somebody else, rich is always more than what we currently have.”
Hurkmans spoke to the Anglican Journal in the backyard of one of his churchwardens, John Butt, following a fish fry to celebrate the presentation in June of a cheque for $33,725 to Bishop Michael Bird of the Hamilton, Ont.-based diocese of Niagara.
Looking out at clouds rolling in over the lake, Hurkmans explained that he had not originally intended the sermon series to lead to a fundraiser. “I kept saying that this wasn’t about asking for money,” he said with a laugh, “but actually as we got to the end of those four weeks, people were emailing me about it. I think the spirit was really convincing people to say ‘Rob, we need to do something.'”
The church decided to try to raise $25,000-enough to settle a refugee family of four to Canada and support them for a year-in four weeks. But by the end of the four-week period, the parish had overshot its goal by more than $8,000, and money was still coming in.
Butt was quite surprised by the upward trajectory of the giving. “You usually receive your funding in the first week, and after a week, we’re all pumped and ready to go, and we all think about it when we get home, and it [gets] harder to part with your money,” he said.
“But instead, it grew,” said Wilhelmina Lange, a parishioner at the church. “It was like everybody was just catching the flame…It’s like God hears us, sees us, says yes to what we’d like to do, and just lit everybody up to do it.”
Unlike many other fundraising projects that churches undertake, the St. James and St. Brendan’s campaign did not entail events such as bake sales or dinners to bring in more funds. All of the money raised was money given.
Curiously enough, Butt, Lange and Hurkmans all said that there had not been a great deal of interest in refugee issues before the current fundraising project. It was the diocese of Niagara’s decision to celebrate its 140th anniversary by attempting to sponsor 50 refugees that led the congregation to put their money toward this cause.
“Like a lot of clergy, stuff like this comes across my desk all the time,” said Hurkmans, “but I think it was just a case of timing…we were at a clergy day, and the bishop got up and spoke passionately about this appeal…Probably he’d said it before, but for the first time I think I was ready to hear it.”
Hurkmans also feels there is something about the personal nature of the project that makes it appealing to his parishioners. “I think there’s a real desire for people to have a personal element to their giving as well. I think they want to know that there is a person at the other end of this.”
A growing awareness of the people left homeless by the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Muslim extremist group ISIS has helped draw attention to the need to for refugee sponsorship. “Everybody knows about the plight of the people in Syria,” said Lange, “and they’re trying to escape from ISIS, and they’re living in conditions that we don’t even camp in.”
In the ceremony, the Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministries at the diocese of Niagara, praised the parish’s generosity, noting that the need for refugee sponsorship has “never been so great since World War II.” He promised to try to help the family settle near Port Colborne.
Bird was also generous in his praise for the parish’s fundraising work. “I just have this vision of a family in Syria or Palestine or Afghanistan, and they are saying their prayers and they have no idea that a miracle is about to happen to them because of the way that you have responded to that challenge to join with God in remaking the world in love,” he said. “I’m absolutely overwhelmed by what you have done, and I wanted to be here to say that to you in person.”
While refugee issues have been a priority for Niagara for some years, this is the first time any group in the diocese has attempted such a large-scale sponsorship project. Mous said that the diocese of Niagara has an agreement with the government to undertake the project, and plans on beginning the application process in the fall. The refugee families are expected to arrive at some point in 2016.