This blog post marks International Migrants Day, December 18, 2018.

This October, with the support of The United Church of Canada, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a delegation from the World Student Christian Federation-North America (WSCF-NA) to the Ecumenical Gathering on Migratory Theology, a conference organized by the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana in Mexico City.  As so often happens, the journey began before I left home. The Sunday before I left for Mexico, I worshiped at a United Church in Toronto, where the congregation was invited to contribute leaves to a beautifully crafted “gratitude tree” at the front of the sanctuary. Many of the messages on the leaves touched on common themes: gratitude for family, friends, health, community… and on at least one leaf, gratitude for “being born in Canada.” I found myself unsettled. Is gratitude really a fitting response to the unearned privilege of being born in a wealthy country?

A painting of two bleeding hands crossed with a fence and raised in the air as if crying out, "For the land is mine."
"For the land is mine," acrylic on paper by Sahuazul. "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." - Leviticus 25:23
Credit: 
Courtesy of Esther Townshend

The same day I first read about the caravan of thousands of migrants fleeing violence in Honduras, who had just crossed into Mexico. By now, I have seen debates among my Facebook friends about whether to describe the people on this journey as migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. Interestingly, these debates have only involved my friends in Canada and the U.S. At the ecumenical gathering, not one of the several dozen speakers made distinctions between migrants and refugees. Many discussed the complexity of the social and political forces driving migration: economic disparity, political instability, gang violence, gender-based violence, environmental degradation, racism, and the intersections of all of these. Yet here in Canada we presume to separate refugees – those whose lives are in imminent danger in their home countries – from migrants who leave home for “economic” reasons. We consider ourselves responsible to one, and not the other. At the same time, we accept little responsibility for the actions of our mining companies and other multinational corporations, and the ways in which they contribute to situations that force people from their homes.

A group photo of the Participants in the Migrant Theology Conference 2018, with about 40 people in it, all wearing dark blue shirts and gathered in front of a large Mexico City hedge.
Participants in the Ecumenical Gathering on Migratory Theology at the Comunidad Teológica de México, Mexico City
Credit: 
Courtesy of Esther Townshend

I certainly learned some new things about political realities at the gathering; but it was, first of all, a theological conference. So what is migratory theology? My understanding, filtered through a language barrier and differences in cultural paradigms, is inevitably limited. Yet the biblical themes and images raised over and over were familiar ones: the imperative of hospitality to the stranger; the Beatitudes; Christ’s judgement, “as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.” In the end, it is the juxtaposition of two biblical images that stays with me, two weeks after my return home. As presenter Alexis Rosim Millán put it: Will we be like the rich young man who turns away from Jesus’ call to leave behind his wealth and follow? Or will we be sowers – sowers of hope? In the past century, churches have fostered movements for labour rights, universal education and healthcare, and civil rights. Will we continue to nurture a growing sanctuary movement?

Action Resources for Canadians

Sign and share the petition to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US.

You can also write, call, or visit your MP to share your concerns about the Safe Third Country Agreement, which prevents migrants who have passed through the United States from claiming refugee status in Canada. Learn more through the Canadian Council for Refugees website.

KAIROS Canada. Equal in Dignity, Equal in Rights: A Migrant Justice Workshop for Church Communities.

Host a workshop in your community to learn about issues that migrant workers face with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and explore how you can take action for migrant justice.

Support a local organization for refugees

You can support existing refugee work in your local church and/or you can find more information about how to sponsor refugees through the United Church of Canada here.

If your community is not in a position to sponsor refugees, there is still plenty you can do to support refugees locally. In the Greater Toronto Area, Romero House organizes a network of people willing to provide short-term housing for newly arrived refugees. In Montreal, Montreal City Mission, a United Church of Canada Community Ministry, offers legal support and community programs for vulnerable migrants. Many organizations supporting refugees need volunteers to provide translation, English conversation practice, childcare, tutoring, mentoring, driving or music lessons, help completing paperwork, etc.

 — Esther Townshend attended an Ecumenical Gathering on Migratory Theology in October 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico through the People in Partnership program.  To invite as a speaker contact pip [at] united-church.ca

Does this blog pique your interest to participate in people-to-people opportunities with global partners? We invite you to find out more at the People in Partnership webpage or by pip [at] united-church.ca (emailing us).