Saturday, March 25, 2017

Migrants, Manitobans and Mennonites: Religious Response to the Refugee Crisis

How should Manitobans respond to the over 200 refugees that have crossed into Manitoba from the U.S. since the start of the year? That question has been on the mind of many people over the past few months.

Since most of these asylum-seekers have entered Canada at Emerson, a small town of about 650 people, I found myself wondering: What are the churches in that community doing?

I decided to try to find out. The four churches in Emerson—Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and United—are very small and, it seems, served by part-time clergy or clergy who look after two three churches in southern Manitoba.

When I called St. Andrews United Church in Emerson, I got a message from an answering machine indicating that the church had received lots of calls about how to help the migrants and refugees.

It went on to say that “none of the churches are directly involved” in helping the border-crossers, who don’t actually spend much time in Emerson; they are quickly transported to Winnipeg, where they are assisted by charities like Welcome Place.

“If you are interested in donating or offering any assistance” contact Welcome Place, the message continued.

So I did. Marchris Gladys, a manager at Welcome Place, told me that since January 1 almost 200 refugees and migrants had sought assistance from the organization, which provides transitional housing and other supports and services to newcomers to Canada. Last year, they had a total of 70 people needing assistance.

What they need most, she said, is money for food, clothing and other necessities for the unexpected flood of newcomers. They have a goal of $300,000; to date, about $27,000 has been donated.

The influx of refugees has also prompted an interesting discussion in the Mennonite community—a group of people who once found themselves in need of safe haven in Canada.

It was started by a Facebook post from Winnipeg’s Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives. On February 21 the Centre’s archivist, Conrad Stoesz, posted an image of a newspaper headline from 1922 announcing “Mennonites now free to come to Canada.”

The newspaper article explained that an “objectionable regulation” that “discriminated” against Mennonites had been lifted by then Prime Minister MacKenzie King.

“In June 1919, the Canadian government banned Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor immigration into Canada due to public pressure,” Stoesz wrote, noting that banning people deemed undesirable was not a new thing, or just an American thing.

“These German-speaking (Russian-speaking for the Doukhobors) people who refused military participation were considered a danger to Canada and lacked Canadian values.”

Reaction to the post was overwhelming, with over 126,000 views and over 1,000 shares so far.

“There’s been nothing like it before,” says Stoesz, adding that most-viewed item prior to this was 10,000 views for a post about Mennonite New Year’s cookies.

The timing of the Trump ban and migrants coming to Manitoba contributed to the interest, he says, adding that “many people saw the connection.”

As for why he posted the item, Stoesz says that he wanted to “raise awareness that Mennonites have suffered prejudice in Canada because of the language they spoke and for some of the values they held dear. Hopefully people will then think about this past and ask themselves how that informs their views on current situations in our world . . . The mirror of our past can help humble our views.”

For some people, the post and the story behind it was personal.

“The lifting of this ban allowed my great grandparents and my grandmother to come to Canada in the mid-1920s and to flee the devastation they experienced as a result of the Russian Revolution,” said one commenter. “I will always be grateful, and will remember what was offered to them and in turn pay it forward to those fleeing war today.”

Added another: “It seems unbelievable that at one point in history Mennonites were viewed as evil,” she said, adding “no doubt in 100 years people will be amazed that anyone would fear Muslims.”

If you want to make a donation to Welcome Place, go to or call 204-977-1000.

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