Religious and lay people discuss the ways they serve sojourners in their midst


A trip to Sierra Leone 34 years ago changed the life of a St. Peter's parishioner.

Nora Riordan went there in 1982 with the Volunteer International Christian Service, a lay Catholic organization, to spend three years volunteering in that African country.

"One of my initial reasons for going to Sierra Leone was to work and give of myself. What I didn't expect was what I would receive in return."

Riordan spent two years as an office coordinator for a health-care program, and then another year at a women's adult education centre, where she helped out at a sewing class for wives of men in the army.

"I was the stranger, and they welcomed me," she told a small group of religious and lay people during a Canadian Religious Conference event at St. Helen's Parish Dec. 3.

Most of her co-volunteers and neighbours were Muslim, but Riordan was surprised to find they had much in common, and was pleased to find them so welcoming. "What I carried home with me is the sense that I received more in friendship and example than what I gave."

When Riordan returned to Canada, she could not go back to her bubble of friends and family. She returned to college intent on getting a degree that would land her a job in social services.

"I had a really difficult time coming home. It was reverse culture shock," she said.

In Sierra Leone strangers greeted each other on the streets; back at home, she realized bassersby tend to keep to themselves.

"I realized how hard it must be for newcomers here. You don't know anybody, you don't know the language very well, and nobody smiles at you or talks to you. You feel so isolated."

Riordan has been helping immigrants and refugees for decades now. When civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991, she volunteered to help refugees settle in Vancouver.

For the last 12 years Riordan has been the coordinator of refugee sponsorship at St. Peter's in New Westminster. Her parish welcomed its first family, a single mom from Sudan with seven children, in 2004. Riordan keeps in touch, and said many of the children are now adults with scholarships for post-secondary schools.

The parish also sponsored a family of five from Iraq in 2011 and three Tibetans in 2013. They are expecting to welcome another family from Iraq next summer.

When a parish sponsors a refugee family, they make a commitment to financially support its members, taking care of rent, food, and all other expenses, for about one year. Volunteers like Riordan greet refugees at the airport, help find and furnish a home, connect them with jobs and language training, and help send their children to school.

"It's not just a job or a duty; it's a genuine friendship."

It's also a Biblically appropriate approach, according to Father Timothy Scott, CSB. The executive director of the Canadian Religious Conference travelled from Montreal to Burnaby for the event.

"In the Old Testament, there's a particular term for those who lived in the land of Israel but were not Israelites," often translated as sojourner or resident alien.

"There's a demand in the Torah for equal treatment of those who are native-born and the resident alien." Sojourners were also to receive special care, and Scripture passages often put them in a protected class with widows and orphans.

"Why treat the resident alien this way? For the Israelites, the answer is found in their history," Father Scott explained. "Their experience of captivity in Egypt should serve as a catalyst for their actions as free women and men in the land of Israel."

Canadians should take these commands to heart. "We, too, apart from aboriginal Canadians, have had the experience of coming to this land, whether a generation ago, a century ago, or for some in Quebec, four centuries ago."

Sojourners don't only include refugees and immigrants, pointed out Sister Karina Farias, CMT. The Teresian Carmelite runs a ministry to farm workers in the Lower Mainland.

Thousands of farmers from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, and the Philippines are away from their homes for months at a time, tending B.C. berries, corn, tomatoes, and peppers for low pay. Away from wives and children, they often feel isolated.

"They can survive in Mexico or Guatemala, but they can't buy a house or a car or get better education for their children. That's why they are here," she said. Their working conditions, however, "are not always respectful of human dignity."

Thanks to her ministry, they get access to Mass and other sacraments in Spanish, join a discipleship program, have community dinners, and celebrate Christmas.

"When people are welcomed, God is revealed."

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