Former refugees return to St Barnabas to share stories with old friends

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“Our church community grew in understanding of new cultures and was blessed by the diversity of faith understanding and the opportunity to reach out to those in need in our community,” say The Rev’d Peter Jeffery and Helen Keith on their parish’s recent ‘Refugee Sunday’ event

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It was an absolute pleasure on Sunday 3 November for St Barnabas Anglican Church in Sunnybank to reflect on decades of ministry with our local refugee and migrant communities.

In the early- to mid-90s St Barnabas was blessed with a network of people who wished to assist some of the most vulnerable within our community. A wonderful group of parishioners and community members rallied around refugee and migrant families to meet not only physical needs but, just as importantly, offer community. At this time, this was a government-supported activity where community groups met a family on arrival to this country and walked with them on their new journey

The local real estate agent supported the group as part of the community by allowing early access to homes so that the St Barnabas faithful could have these rental properties wonderfully homely even before the residents were able to move in. Busy days followed after their welcome arrivals, with visits to government support services, enrolling children at school, assisting with uniform supplies, explaining the public transport system, enabling access to language classes and just being a friendly presence in their lives.

The idea of our recent ‘Refugee Sunday’ gathering was to invite these families that had been assisted so many years ago and allow a space to share their hardships and gratitude and celebrate the stories of 20 plus years.

We were blessed with a gathering of Salvadorian and Sudanese people who are either current or former members of the congregation. Some Bosnian families were not able to be with us. The families present had been supported when their children were six to seven years old. Now grown up with children of their own, they shared painful accounts of leaving all behind and powerful testimonies of the value of a Christian community. Members of the support group walked alongside these families and brought them into a genuine community experience. One person shared:

“I did not think God knew what he was doing when we were forced to leave everything and come to Australia. I struggled to settle in Australia. I did not want to be here. But God surrounded me with this amazing love and community and I realised I was wrong. My prayers were being heard, but I was not listening to God.”

There was so much gratitude in the testimonies we were privileged to share in; each bringing strong personal stories that counter negative stereotypes that are unwarrantedly brandished onto these communities. Parents shared stories of how they toiled in mundane and insecure work, holding on to hope and the future available to their children, and how they rejoiced as family members went on to graduate from university and find secure employment. The work ethic and appreciation witnessed in the lives of the youngest of these offers a reflection on the gratitude we show (or do not show) to God.

Our church community grew in understanding of new cultures and was blessed by the diversity of faith understanding and the opportunity to reach out to those in need in our community. The support committee met regularly and new members were welcomed, especially from the early refugee families keen to help others in return. The refugee families were not necessarily Anglican, but they were welcomed into our fellowship and then encouraged if they sought their own affiliation. We rejoiced as some were baptised and have been blessed by those who have remained part of our community. Today we celebrate as their grandchildren form part of our children’s ministry. It was wonderful to hear from those who are now involved in other congregations as musicians and catechists.

A constant thread in the stories told was the receiving of love and support that enabled survival. Today the support is still available, but not so locally based. We are challenged today to move out of our comfort zones to engage with those seeking safety in our communities.

Our prayers not only remain with these families who came and shared their stories, but for new families that our Diocesan community has the privilege of engaging with. May the Holy Spirit work in inspiring the church and wider community to continue to welcome and embrace vulnerable people into our community. May we work together in the image of God.

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