Mission Center: The Episcopal Church: Community

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Connecticut Church finds "new friendships, different perspective" in service to refugees

Holy Advent members (L to R) Don Hubert, Diana Achee, the Rev. Bruce Shipman and Bill Russell speak with EMM's Dan Trudeau
[Photo by Chris George, IRIS]

What started with some available real estate and a brief presentation at a diocesan convention has led to a transformative ministry for the Episcopal Church of the Holy Advent in Clinton, Connecticut.

August marks the first anniversary of the arrival of a family of six refugees from Iraq who have been staying in the church’s rectory and transitioning to life in the United States with the assistance of Holy Advent members.

The experience of providing assistance to refugees in conjunction with an Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) affiliate office is known as co-sponsorship. For Holy Advent members and the family they’ve helped, this experience has included a number of challenges. But with the family’s five adult siblings now all working, learning English and adjusting to life in the U.S., it’s clear the partnership has been a success.

“The amount that they have accomplished in just 11 months is astonishing,” Holy Advent vicar, the Rev. Bruce Shipman, said of the family.I think (refugee co-sponsorship) is the right thing to do. I think we’ve never doubted that, but it has been demanding.”

The experience has been demanding, in part, because the church has offered an extraordinary level of support to the family. Both in terms of scope and duration, Holy Advent’s efforts have greatly exceeded what EMM asks of churches and other co-sponsors.

The church became involved with refugees in December, 2008, after Shipman heard a presentation on the resettlement ministry at the convention of the Diocese of Connecticut. The speaker was Chris George, Executive Director of Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), an EMM affiliate in New Haven.

For Shipman, the appeal to assist refugees resettling in the state was persuasive, and the fact that the church had a large rectory sitting empty on its premises convinced him to take the idea back to the parish.

“I kind of jokingly mentioned it in a sermon, ‘You know, we might even consider that here of all places, Ha-Ha!’” Shipman said. “The seed was planted, and we began talking about it in little bits.”

The seed grew quickly. A church member – Alice Flanagan – had previously been interested in refugee ministry and had been in contact with IRIS. Flanagan helped gather a committee of several church members to prepare a budget and a plan for organizing the myriad tasks needed to help the family successfully begin a new life in Connecticut.

When Flanagan sadly passed away in the middle of the organizing effort, a number of other church members took up the task in her place. In May 2009, the first member of the family arrived – a 21-year-old son named Ahmed.

Church member Diana Achee played a big role in the organizing effort. She remembers vividly picking the young man up from the airport and driving him to meet his brother, a fellow refugee who has been resettled in a nearby community.

“It was the best feeling to know that this kid – who really didn’t know what he was getting into – was so happy to be reunited with his brother,” Achee said.

Don Hubert is a warden at Holy Advent and a member of the committee who helped plan for the family’s arrival and has been assisting them since they arrived. Having a young man arrive alone presented an unforeseen challenge, Hubert said, and helped the church members grasp the magnitude of their responsibility as co-sponsors.

“This boy had never lifted a pot or a pan. He couldn’t even boil water. He had no idea how to cook for himself,” Hubert said. “We had to bring him home for dinner on shifts just to keep him fed and try to teach him to cook.”

In August, 2009, the rest of the family arrived. From that point on, the co-sponsors at Holy Advent found plenty of ways to help. They took responsibility for driving the family to medical appointments, English and employment classes, driving lessons, meetings with case managers at IRIS and a whole host of other appointments.

In addition, they found two donated cars and arranged with a local high school automotive repair class and area garages to maintain the vehicles for free. They also provided assistance with finding jobs, and – of course – provided and furnished housing in the rectory. All of these efforts have benefitted the refugee family and earned their gratitude.

“The people here have given us a lot of support,” Ahmed said. “They’re really like another family.”

In the coming months the family is going to move into housing not connected with the church and manage their affairs without help from Holy Advent. IRIS Executive Director George said the year of support from the church has given the family a tremendous head start, something that not all refugees are currently able to count on.

But the ministry has also had unforeseen benefits for the parish, which has grown closer through the endeavor, and created closer ties to the community, Shipman said.

“That is one of the great virtues of this whole ministry – it has made connections with the community, new friendships and ties to this church. It has given us a new profile and a whole different perspective,” Shipman said. “It’s also demonstrated how faith works: that belief and making things happen have a way on building on themselves.”

-- Dan Trudeau is a Program Associate at Episcopal Migration Ministries

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