Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Helping Syrian Refugees in Canada and Closer to Their Homes

Lots of churches are planning to sponsor Syrian refugees--a generous response that warms all of our hearts. But sponsoring refugees is expensive. It can cost between $30,000 to $50,000 to bring in one family. This is money that will not be available to international aid organizations that are trying to help the millions of desperate Syrian refugees still in the region--people who are hungry, yet who want to return home one day to rebuild their shattered country. Maybe we can do both: Help people who want to come to Canada, and those who, like young Angeline above, are still in places like Jordan and Lebanon. 

 “Don’t forget me.”

That’s what a Syrian woman told Don Peters, Executive Director of Mennonite Central Committee, when he visited her in Lebanon.

It was 2013, and Peters had met many Syrians in that country who had fled their homes In Syria for uncertain lives as refugees. They told him about escaping as their homes were being destroyed, and about watching conflict envelop their cities and neighbourhoods.

“Many had crossed into Lebanon without official documents and little money,” says Peters. 

“They were worried about how they would buy food and pay for housing. They wondered if they would be able to find work, schools for their children and medical attention for their injuries.”

Most of them said their dream was to return home to Syria one day to rebuild their shattered communities and lives.

As Peters looked into that woman’s eyes, he realized she was asking him something profound, something beyond her own personal story.

“She was asking me to remember all the people we had met, and all the refugees who would seek a safe haven in places such as Lebanon,” he says.

Unfortunately that woman, and the millions of other Syrians still in the region who are affected by the conflict in their country, they are in danger of being forgotten today by many Canadians.

This isn’t happening out of lack of care or concern. To their great credit, many churches and other places of worship, along with businesses, governments and others, are responding generously to help relocate Syrian refugees to Canada. 

We have all been moved by the heartfelt scenes in the media as sponsors welcome families from that war-torn country to their new home.

This response is a good, right, proper and Canadian thing to do. Everyone who has donated money, time or effort to help resettle Syrian refugees in Canada is to be commended. 

But the number of refugees coming to Canada is just a fraction of the many people from that country who need our help today.

Right now, there are an estimated three million Syrians who have fled for safety to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Over six million are internally displaced within Syria itself. The World Food Programme (WFP) is feeding over four million people inside Syria and 1.3 million more in neighbouring countries.

These are people who hope to go home one day, when the war finally ends. But with almost all the attention today on helping bring refugees to Canada, its hard for aid agencies to raise awareness about their needs—or get the funding they need.

For example, declines in funding has meant that the WFP has had to reduce the amount of food it provides for Syrian refugees by a quarter. This means people have to eat smaller meals, and less frequently. Other aid groups face similar challenges.

This doesn’t mean Canadians should stop helping bring Syrian refugees to Canada—far from it!  But perhaps they can help people come here, but also help those who are still in the region.

One way to do that would be for groups sponsoring refugee families to add ten percent to the total they need to raise. This extra money can then be given to help those who are still in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

For example, it costs my own agency, Canadian Foodgrains Bank, $13.50 to provide supplemental food for one Syrian refugee in Lebanon or Jordan for a month through its member agencies. It’s $67.50 for a family of five. 

Since it can cost between $30,000 to $50,000 to sponsor one family to come to Canada, an extra ten percent would provide $3,000 to $5,000, or enough for a group to “sponsor” another three to six families a year.

For Peters, that encounter with the Syrian refugee woman two years ago stayed with him. “Of all the places I have been, and the people I have met during my time at MCC, that day in Lebanon is one of my most profound memories,” he says.

Not all of us can have a personal experience like that. But we can all join together in remembering her, and the millions more Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who need our help. 

Donations made by December 31 to registered charities responding to the needs of Syrian refugees in the region will be matched 1:1 by the Canadian government.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Welcoming Syrian Refugees to Canada: The Best Christmas Ever?

Is 2015 the best Christmas ever? It sure feels that way.

I don’t know about you, but my heart has been warmed this season, and not just because of the warmer than normal temperatures. Rather, it’s because of the amazing response across Canada to the plight of Syrian refugees.

I don’t get misty-eyed with national pride very often, but I felt proud to be a Canadian as I watched the Prime Minister welcome the first Syrians with the simple words: “You are home.”

It doesn’t hurt that other countries have noticed, and are heaping praise on Canada.

“Until Mr. Trudeau’s election, the Canadian government had been among Western countries that had responded to the refugee crisis with more apprehension than compassion,” said an editorial in the New York Times.

It went on to note that while the crisis in Syria is huge, and Canada’s response is small in comparison to the need. Yet, the newspaper noted, “Canada’s generosity—and Mr. Trudeau’s personal warmth and leadership—can serve as a beacon for others.”

As with many other international crises, churches are at the forefront of the response. This is not surprising; churches have long history of responding to these kinds of needs.

This includes my own church, which announced to applause on Sunday that it has decided to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

And it’s not only Christians; other faith groups are also responding. This includes members of the local Jewish community, who want to help another group caught up in the conflict in that region—the Yazidis—through Operation Ezra. 

The effort to help this persecuted minority is being led Belle Jarniewski, chairwoman of the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre and vice-president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.

For her, the cause is personal; during the Holocaust, her father’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. She wants to prevent a similar genocide from befalling the Yazidis.

In an op-ed in this newspaper, she wrote that the words “never again” means “we would not stand by silently while another people is being slaughtered because of what they believe.”

While it’s enormously gratifying to see so many people wanting to help resettle refugees in Canada, there is concern this will mean fewer dollars will be available to help the estimated three million Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in places like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

With it costing $20,000 to $40,000 to settle a refugee family in Canada, there is concern among aid agencies that there will be fewer dollars left over to help people who are facing hunger and other needs in those countries.

One idea being floated is for churches and other groups that want to sponsor refugees to Canada to raise an additional five or ten percent to help those who are living in countries closer to their homeland.

Since it can cost only $80-$100 a month to provide supplementary food assistance for a family of six, this means a little can go a long way towards helping families who choose not to leave for places like Canada—people who hope to go home again one day to rebuild their broken nation.

But that is not to take away from the heartfelt and generous response from individuals, congregations, local and provincial governments, schools, businesses and so many others.

Altogether, the outpouring of support makes things feel so right, so Canadian, so Christmasy. It aligns so perfectly with the original biblical story of another young family seeking shelter and safety so long ago—a family that themselves would also become refugees.

Sure, there is still far too much attention paid to the glitzy consumerism of Christmas. We cannot escape the fake sentimentalities of the season that cling like slush to our shoes. 

And there are still far too many too many homeless and hungry Canadians who will not share in the cozy and familial delight of this holiday.

But there is still something magical, or maybe star-like, in the air. Maybe it’s that beacon noted by the New York Times, a shining light from Canada that brightens all of our spirits.

I don’t know if you feel that way, too, but through the response to the plight of Syrian refugees I hear an echo of the angels in the Gospel of Luke, the ones who sang “peace, goodwill to all” the night the Christ child was born.

Until Dec. 31, the Canadian government is matching all donations 1:1 for Syrian refugees in Lebanon & Jordan. You can support the efforts of Canadian Foodgrains Bank to help refugees in those countries by clicking here. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lowest Overhead or Biggest Impact: What's the Best Way to Choose a Charity?

Once again, this year the non-profit I work for was named to the top 25 list of best Canadian non-profits to give to. I am not promoting the favourable ranking.  Why? First, I don’t agree with how the rankings work, giving highest marks for lowest overhead. Second, it isn’t fair to all the other charities that do good work, but don’t make the list. As it turns out, Bruce MacDonald, CEO of Imagine Canada, feels the same way about charity rankings, as the interview below shows. 

Are you planning to make a year-end donation to charity?

If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. It is estimated that over $5 billion is given by Canadians to non-profit organizations in the last six weeks of each year.

Much of that is given by people of faith. Research repeatedly shows that the more religious a person is, the more they give to charity.

Many donors have already decided who to give to. But others may not yet have made up their minds. With over 86,000 charities in Canada, it can be hard to choose. What to do?

Many people will turn to the increasingly-popular lists of Canada’s “best” charities. These rankings, which rate charities according to their financial efficiency—the best bang for the donated buck—get a lot of publicity in the media around Christmastime.

For many Canadians, they are a popular way to determine which group to give to. It saves a lot of time, and donors can know their money went to the "best" non-profit groups, the ones that spend the least on overhead. 

Or is that the case? Bruce MacDonald doesn’t think so.
According to MacDonald, President and CEO of Imagine Canada, an umbrella group for Canadian charities, the problem is that these rankings measure the wrong thing.

While glad the media is interested in the charitable sector, these rankings “are invariably skewed to having a heavy emphasis on the cost side of business,” he says, adding that they “perpetuate the belief that ensuring adequate resources to deliver quality programs is a bad thing.”

What MacDonald objects to is how the highest rankings are given to groups that spend the least on things like staff salaries, administration, communications and fundraising. The ones that need to spend more to deliver their programs end up with lower scores.

He agrees that charities need to be careful with donated dollars. But, he says, this way of measuring charity effectiveness is “a poor reflection” of the real worth of non-profit organizations.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” he states. “The issues the different groups address are complex. It’s hard to compare a group that digs wells in Ghana with an organization that treats people with AIDS in Vancouver.”

What MacDonald would rather see measured is impact—what effect has the charity has on the lives of people it is trying to help? And if it costs more to help someone beat an addiction or escape poverty to do it, that should be money well spent.

“If you want real impact, you need to have real investment,” he says. “It’s hard for groups to achieve life-changing outcomes if they can only invest a little.”

In addition to affecting donor behaviour, MacDonald also is critical of how these rankings promote the idea that “charity costs nothing.” 

He is also concerned about the effect on charities themselves. The rankings, he says, have created what he calls “a race to the bottom” as groups try to out-do each other and get higher scores by touting lower overheads.

MacDonald knows the rankings won't stop. But what he would like to see is the media doing a better job of putting charity effectiveness in context. And he would also like to see charities decline to participate in the ranking process, or refuse to do any publicity if they get a good ranking. 

“We need to stop defining ourselves according to someone else’s playing field,” he says of Canada's non-profit sector. “We need to reframe the narrative about the sector so we talk more about impact, not just about costs.”

As someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for most of my career, what MacDonald says rings true for me. 

The truth is that doing good well costs money. Groups need well-trained staff, up-to-date technology, great accounting and skilled oversight to ensure donations are used effectively and for their intended purposes.

So as you prepare for your year-end giving, the best advice is always to start early and do your own research. Then, once you have chosen a charity, stick with it—that way you will always know how your donations are being used.

But if you have waited to the last moment, don’t just rely on the rankings. If you can, take a bit more time to find the one that gets the best results.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Is Your Church Liquid? Or, What's in a Name.

A church in my neighbourhood is thinking about a name change. Its current name is taken from its location and denomination; so far, the new names being suggested are mostly variations on the same theme. Maybe what they need to do is really step out of the proverbial box and come up with something radical, like many churches are doing today.

There was a time when it was easy to name a church. All a congregation needed to do was follow a few simple guidelines. 

If you were Protestant, always include the denomination: Baptist, Nazarene, Mennonite, Pentecostal, etc.

In order to be easily found, include geography, using either a street name or location.

For churches lacking in imagination, chronology was helpful: First Baptist, Second Church of Christ, Scientist or Third Presbyterian. 

Saints were also a great source of names, especially for Catholics and mainline Protestants. So were biblical concepts like Epiphany, Faith, Grace, Abundant Life, Immaculate Conception or Miracle, to name a few. 

Those simple days seem are long gone. 

Blogger Dennis Baker took a look around the U.S. and came across the following names for churches: 

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Mosaic
  • Encompass
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • Solomon’s Porch
  • Celebration
  • Legacy
  • Encounter
  • The Well
  • Carpenter’s
  • Flipside
  • Substance
  • The Orchard
  • The Pursuit
  • Liquid
  • The Table

And dozens more.

Unique church names are not only found in the U.S.Winnipeg, where I live, has a few, as well, such as Soul Sanctuary, Oasis, Springs, The Bridge, Solidrock, Church of the Rock, Faithworks 4 U, The Meeting Place and The Den.

What’s driving the changes? The same thing that’s driving name changes in the business world: The need to stand out in an increasingly noisy and cluttered marketplace.

In this case, it’s the marketplace of theological ideas. People want a name that sticks out—one that arouses curiosity and sticks in the mind of those who might be seeking a church home.

People also want names that stand out on the Internet. There are a lot of First Baptists out there, but how many churches do you think are named Liquid? (It’s in New Jersey, in case you’re interested.)

But how to come up with a new name? One way is to ask the congregation what they like. Or you could do what Matt Sweetman, a church planter in Chicago, did. 

When it was time to find a name for his new church, Sweetman came up with a list of names and then did a survey in the community.  

In selecting potential names, his first criteria was that it had to be simple: “One or two words with the word ‘church’ after it,” he wrote on his blog. “People need to know we are a church, so having ‘church’ [in the name] is important to me.”

He also wanted it to be attractive for people who didn’t go to church, but not one that alienated Christians.

It had to be “something non-traditional, because we are targeting a younger urban crowd, yet something not too wacky that would turn away Christians who are looking for a church,” he said.

The four names that rose to the top for consideration were: Message Church, Crimson Church, Destination Church and Celebration Church.

Church members then went out in the neighbourhood and asked people: “Purely based on the name, which church would you be most likely to visit if a friend invited you or if you saw an advertisement?”

The winner? Destination Church—that was the name that was most appealing.

In addition to being original, he wrote, “it has great theological meaning. Our destination is Jesus. Everything ultimately finds meaning in him. It speaks of purpose, clarity and goals. Most Christians thought it sounded strong and had lots of marketing potential. 

"Non-Christians shocked us with their opinion of this name. 90 percent of them really liked it. They understood it. It made sense to them and they thought it sounded pretty cool, actually.”

So, what’s in a name? It should be memorable, reflect congregational character and beliefs, and arouse a curiosity.

That, plus be easy to find on the Internet.