“You won’t believe this, Alexa, but his name is Jozsef. He has a wife and child, and they are looking for a safe place to stay. I’ve called 20 churches, and they all said they were too busy with Christmas.”
It was December 2012 when Mary Jo Leddy of the Canadian Sanctuary Network called me at Windermere United in Toronto. Jozsef Pusuma, his wife, Timea Daroczi, and daughter, Lulu, were Roma refugees from Hungary whose negligent lawyer had botched their case. They were human rights activists facing deportation by the Canadian government and death at the hands of a neo-Nazi group who had already made one attempt on their lives in their home country. Desperate, they sought sanctuary within a church where they could live for a few months while their new lawyer fought for their right to stay in Canada. After carefully discerning the cost and the calling, we offered our protection. We were told they’d live with us for three months, but in the end, it took nearly two years to win their case. It was the hardest thing we ever did as a congregation. It was also, in the words of one congregant, “The first time we really knew what it meant to be the church.”
Sometimes it takes a holy family asking for room to pull the focus from decline to discipleship. Prior to the family coming to stay, our church was talking about closing. “Giving sanctuary to Joszef, Timea and Lulu changed my thinking on so many issues,” says Susan Hinchcliffe, a congregant in her late 70s. “Before, I was like those in the moderate white church that Martin Luther King Jr. was writing to from Birmingham jail…but now, I think I’d be in jail with him.”
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When Hinchcliffe joined Windermere in 1962, she said, “It was a time when going to church was more important than being the church. Church was setting the perfect luncheon tables, getting the best speaker…and everyone we served was already a member of the church.”
Ten years ago, we did not know our neighbours. Now, still deeply rooted in faith, we are also a community hub for anyone who feels moved to mend God’s world with us. Since 2012, our staff hours have doubled, income and congregational givings have increased 90 percent, and rental income is up 80 percent. The congregation size doubled, church membership increased 50 percent and the leadership has been renewed. Interestingly, the only thing that has stayed the same is the Sunday worship attendance numbers. And we’re fine with that.
I like to think that we’re a post-resurrection church that swept the false idol of Christendom off the altar and found Christ waiting outside the front door. We went out, not just because we knew it was right but because we had to! We were too small to look after the Pusumas by ourselves. A congregant from a neighbouring church told us we had bitten off more than we could chew. When we told him God would provide, he wrote us a $10,000 cheque. Doctors, hair dressers and children from the local schools rallied to the cause, which was called #FreeLulu.
In 2014, an interfaith coalition formed, and 200 members protested outside the federal immigration minister’s office demanding residency status for the family. They brought a petition signed by 43,000 supportive Canadians. The Harper government staunchly refused to re-examine the case, despite a federal court order. It would take another year of advocacy, an election and a new minister of immigration from the Liberal Party before Lulu and her family were finally freed.
Caring for the Pusumas formed the basis for a new ministry at Windermere United called the Stone Soup Network. It invites local businesses to donate their goods and services, and uses an online platform to catalogue and distribute the donations to recipients in need through a network of local clergy, social workers and health-care professionals. This has increased our benevolent capacity from $3,000 in 2017 to $83,000 two years later, and the initiative will go national this year.
Last year, COVID-19 hit and the Spirit brought new holy families in need to our doorstep.
Our reputation for public outreach, which began with providing sanctuary, made us a refuge for those anxious and in need. People we had never met were telling their friends that Windermere United could help them. Under the Essential Services Act, our food security programs and online Stone Soup Network stayed open to provide basic necessities of life to those on the margins.
Having learned from our sanctuary experience, we didn’t go it alone. With the support of 160 non-church volunteers, a half-dozen other churches and a handful of organizations, we got to work providing food, masks and more.
As we were packing masks, one of our non-religious helpers said, “I don’t come on Sunday morning, but I consider myself part of your informal congregation.” Windermere United’s formal congregation is still passionate about the weekly worship and spiritual practices that reinvigorate the soul, but now we also have dozens of “informal congregants” engaging in God’s mission alongside us all week long. It is amazing what can happen to a tiny church when you let the holy family in.
This story first appeared in Broadview‘s March 2021 issue with the title “Decline to discipleship.”
Rev. Alexa Gilmour is the minister at Windermere United in Toronto. She is the founder of the Stone Soup Network and a member of the Canadian Sanctuary Network and Faith in the City.
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