Members of several groups and churches will meet for Refugee Housing Crisis: Developing a Response February 3. Dena Nicolai is inviting wide participation, including those who might be a bit skeptical.
In my theological tradition, we sometimes talk about “square inches,” a catchphrase which can cause puzzlement until someone finally explains the reference: a speech by Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper, who stated almost 150 years ago:
There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine!’
The question of square inches then, is a reframing of what followers of Christ have been asking for centuries: how are we to live in response to the good news of Jesus, and how does this good news impact each area of life?
In my world over the last several years, the question of theological square inches has been very focused on the question of physical square inches: square inches of housing.
Those of us who live in Vancouver have long been aware that the high cost and shortage of housing is a critical problem, the solutions for which are continually debated. Discussions of empty homes taxes, prohibitions on foreign ownership, new zoning regulations and short-term rental bans have often turned contentious. Though many policies and practices are being implemented, many of us haven’t yet observed enough change to quell our concern.
In my work with the Christian Reformed Churches of British Columbia, supporting newcomers to Canada who arrive through various refugee pathways, I feel this concern acutely.
At least three times a week, a newcomer-to-Canada approaches me to ask if I know of somewhere they can live.
Frequently, these newcomers are people seeking refugee protection – people we may describe using the terms ‘refugee claimants’ or ‘asylum seekers.’
Sometimes they are staying with family or friends (generally with far too many people in far too little space), and sometimes they are in transitional housing – but increasingly they are staying in temporary shelters, finding space on a chair at the airport for many nights in a row or even, at times, sleeping in parks or on the street.
It can be tempting, and all-too easy, to respond to these newcomers from a place of scarcity (“There’s not enough housing!”) or protectionism (“What there is should go to people who were here before you!”) or cynicism (“Justify to us that you’re truly in need”).
But as followers of Jesus, I firmly believe we are challenged to respond differently. Challenged to respond out of the deep hope of God’s shalom (Revelation 21:1-5), a desire to share the peace of Christ which passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7) and an imagination shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within each one of us – that same power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20).
With this new imagination, our answer to the question of housing can never be to pit one group of image-bearers against another, nor can it be to scapegoat newcomers-to-Canada for a housing problem that has been many decades in the making.
I understand – and have been accused of naivete on this issue. I’ve heard anything from, “But what if they’re not actually refugees?” to, “What if their claim is denied?,” to, “Do you expect us just to house everyone?”
But my starting point is never those questions. Instead, I begin from the recognizance that I do not represent the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), or Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) or the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), nor do I need to.
I do represent the church, and I am a follower of Jesus, and so my starting point is to ask myself, “How shall I treat this image-bearer of God who is standing right in front of me, asking for a place to sleep?”
God has never promised us that following the way of Jesus would be simple or easy – but God has always promised us that it would be good. The answer to the question of square inches of housing is complex, and will involve challenge, and likely sacrifice. And it will most certainly involve a new imagination.
As we engage in this imagining, those of us who talk daily with people affected by the housing shortage so personally are deeply aware we cannot do it on our own, and we need other followers of Jesus to join us.
On Saturday, February 3, CityGate Leadership Forum, Kinbrace Community Society, the Journey Home Community, Tenth Church and myself are co-hosting a morning of conversation around how churches and followers of Jesus across BC might collectively address the need for housing for refugee claimants.
To those who may be skeptical or cynical, we invite you to bring your questions and concerns, and to hear from others about needs, challenges and opportunities.
To those who may be feeling pessimism or despair, we invite you to enter a hopeful conversation.
As we explore our calling in this particular square inch, we pray we’ll do so with a new imagination, and on February 3, we hope you will come imagine with us.