Epiphany Explorations 2012: Meeting the Stranger, Face-to-Face


Epiphany Explorations takes place from January 19-23 this year

Photo © Vladimir Kolobov/iStockPhoto

by Mike Schwartzentruber

For the sixth year, I’m spending the third week of January at Epiphany Explorations, an annual event held at First Metropolitan United Church in Victoria, BC. This year, 650 souls are gathering – a big crowd to hear some big-name speakers, including Marcus Borg, Richard Rohrbaugh, Elizabeth May, Martin Brokenleg, and, just this evening, Mary Jo Leddy.

Mary Jo is the Director of Romero House Community for Refugees. She is also an adjunct professor at Regis College, University of Toronto; an author, a journalist, and was founding editor of Catholic New Times. The titles, of course, convey little about the person. You need to meet her face-to-face, to hear her speak to get a true sense of the quiet strength, compassion, and wisdom of the woman. Which is exactly how she would want it.

Mary Jo describes her work as “a ministry of accompaniment” with refugees. In other words, she’s an advocate for desperate people who, in increasing numbers, are being written off, disbelieved, and sent packing back to the countries from which they were forced to flee for their very lives. And all of this by a faceless bureaucracy and government – our government and the bureaucracy of our Canadian Immigration Department – which keeps refugee claimants at arm’s length and faceless. Or worse, actively misrepresents to the Canadian people their true face.

Some of Mary Jo’s work involves finding “sanctuary” for refugees who are about to be deported – not an easy task these days when churches, and most of the people in them, are so “busy.” Busy with their own lives, busy with committees, busy with planning worship and leading Christian education and doing the thousand and one other things churches do. Mary Jo is not immune to this plague of busyness herself. Often she experiences an “invitation” to help – an opportunity to extend and grow her own humanity, really – as an “intrusion.”

That’s how it was this past Christmas when she was contacted about a young Roma family – “Gypsies,” we used to call them – who were about to be deported back to Hungary, where they would likely be killed because the father had documented the rise of neo-Nazi groups as part of his work on human rights. She was busy with Christmas things. The request felt like an intrusion. A burden.

Things didn’t change for her until she met the family face-to-face: Joseph, the young father, intelligent and calm but full of concern for his family; the young wife, Tamara, beautiful and strong; the little daughter playing quietly in a corner. That’s when she knew she had to do something. Not everything perhaps. But at least the one thing she could do to make a difference in this family’s life.

It tends to be that way with churches, too. It’s difficult to walk away, to turn your back on someone when you truly meet them, face-to-to face.

That’s why it’s essential for us, as Christians, to make room in our lives to be “summoned,” to be “invited,” to be “faced” by the stranger, by the Christ child in our midst. By the Christ child whose family also did not have a place to stay, who were repeatedly turned away in their hour of greatest need.

This was an important message to hear during Epiphany when, supposedly, we are trying to follow the star, when we actively seek “the face of God.”

Mary Jo’s story had a happy ending, for now at least. Just yesterday, after being refused by 20 churches, she found a Priory willing to take the family in – a small group of old men who were not too busy, who had the space and the time, they said, to take the family in and care for them.

Imagine what a gift of life that young family will be to that community of aging men! Imagine what a gift the gentleness and wisdom of these welcoming old men will be to this frightened family so far from home.

Imagine what it might mean in our own lives to really meet the stranger, face-to-face. Just imagine… and respond.

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Categories: Christian Life, Mike Schwartzentruber, Peace, Justice, and Equality

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at woodlakebooks.com

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One Comment on “Epiphany Explorations 2012: Meeting the Stranger, Face-to-Face”

  1. February 22, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Nice to reconnect with you Mike. Helpful story. It would be good to know “the rest of the story”, but that will take some time. To refresh your memory, I was part of an AHA group and more recently I just happened to see you at Vancouver School of Theology needing a ride to the airport and I volunteered to take you and you gave me a meal at a Richmond eatery near the airport. I come to Vancouver at least four times a year to be challenged by the offerings of the Pacific Theatre and occasionally I touch base at Vancouver School of Theology. I am now retired (after 51 years in United Methodist ministry) and volunteer as a promoter of PET (Personal Energy Transportation Handbike), among other things.

    Continued best wishes, John J. Shaffer, Stanwood, WA

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