Who Should We Help?

Who should Jesus heal? That’s one of the questions that lurks in the background of today’s scripture reading. Jesus has just started his ministry. He has been gathering disciples as he walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. None of them know that Jesus has healing powers. Not yet.

But then Jesus shows that he isn’t just someone with charisma. He pulls a loud demon out of a man in synagogue on a Saturday. Then, when he and his new disciples go to Simon’s house for a meal, he cures Simon’s sick mother-in-law. The disciples are learning that their teacher, who has a way with words and religious understanding, also has the power to heal. 

Word gets out.  When the sabbath ends at sundown, there’s a crowd at the door. All sorts of people have come in need of healing or exorcising. The question is what will Jesus do with these healing powers of his? Will he only heal the people who could be useful to him, like Simon’s mother-in-law? Will he only exorcize the demons who may reveal the secret that he is the Messiah?

If you have special powers to help, you have to choose: do you help everybody, or just the people who will be useful to you?

This is Black History month, and last year, we witnessed a new chapter in Toronto’s Black history. It, too, involved a question about who should be helped.

During the summer, African refugees started sleeping outside the intake office for the Shelter System. It’s on Peter Street downtown, just up the street from the Skydome. 

This is what that looked like in July. Refugees from East Africa had been landing at Pearson airport, where they were told to go down to Peter Street to get into the shelter system. 

But at Peter Street, they learned the shelter system was full. So, they stayed, hoping to get in the next day. And the next. When the office closed at night, some stayed outside, others slept in Nathan Phillips Square and other local parks. 

The city said it had no room or money. They said that refugees are a federal responsibility. Ottawa told the city that these people were not refugees until the federal government said so. Their cases needed to be assessed, and that could take years. Until then, they were asylum seekers, and they were the city’s problem. While the governments pointed fingers at each other, Black people were arriving every day from Africa, with no place to sleep. 

Canada’s federal government has a spotty record when it comes to welcoming Black people into this country. During most of the 19th century, our government welcomed and protected Black American refugees who came here escaping slavery. They were protected from bounty hunters who wanted to take them back to the US. However, about a decade after the Civil War ended, the federal government changed its tune. Fear of racial conflict led the federal government to discourage American Black farmers from crossing into Canada. Blacks who wanted to escape segregation and Jim Crow were turned away from the Canadian border on the pretext that they needed more money to enter, or they had health concerns.[1]

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that the federal government opened the border for some Black people.  The Canadian government wanted to attract domestic workers from the Caribbean. A new wave of immigration began, at first mostly for Black women, but soon families and men joined them. [2] This is the origin of many Black families in Toronto.  It seemed like Canada’s doors were finally open to all people, including Black people. And word spread, all over the world, that Canada is a welcoming place to people of all races. 

Canada is known as a country that welcomes refugees. We want the world to see us that way. But the fact is, we don’t like people showing up unannounced. The land border with the United States is now closed to surprise refugees. A change in legislation [3] last year makes it almost impossible for anyone to show up unannounced to claim refugee status. Most will be told they should have applied in the United States, or any other country they travelled through to reach the Canadian border. We have effectively closed the door to refugees on our southern border.[4]

This means that if you are a refugee seeking to enter Canada to apply for asylum, you need to fly in. To do that, you’ll need a visa – like a tourist or student visa. But last summer, thousands of African refugees with federally issued visas were greeted by closed doors. They knocked, and the shelter system said no. They knocked and the federal government told them to get in line, or to apply from home. So, they slept on the streets. In a city that was once proud of accepting Black refugees.

They come for many reasons. Some are LGBTQ+ people who risk being executed by their governments for practicing their sexuality. Others are democratic activists coming from countries where they are at risk from autocratic governments. Others are fleeing domestic abuse, a valid condition for refugee status in Canada. They did not apply for refugee status from their home countries because it usually takes 2-3 years to get an answer. When you are in danger, that is far too long. So, instead, they applied and received tourist or student visas, which take less time to receive. If your life was in danger, wouldn’t you do the same?

Fortunately, bureaucratic logic is not the only system of morals we have in this country. In today’s scripture reading, we hear about who Jesus has been healing as his ministry begins. At first it looks like Jesus will be healing only the people who serve his mission. He heals the demon-possessed man in the synagogue so that He won’t tell everyone Jesus is the Messiah. It is too soon for that. Next, Jesus heals the woman in the house where He has gone for lunch. This was a nice thing to do, but perhaps He just wanted someone to cook their meal.

But when the sun goes down, Jesus goes further. People are knocking on the door. People have heard that a healer is in town. Heal my sister, heal my brother, heal my friend, heal me, I who have no one. The door is opened, and Jesus heals them. No questions asked. And the next morning, he tells the disciples that he wants to travel throughout Galilee to preach the good news and to heal people. There are no means tests, no forms to fill out, no need to prove that you are sick. He just helps.

And that example is what inspired the churches last year to help the refugees on our streets when the governments closed their doors. Black churches, often quite poor churches, came forward. They saw their brothers and sisters sleeping on the streets in this wealthy city, and they took them in. They opened their doors. 

Dominion mattresses

They provided chairs and mattresses on floors to hundreds of refugees at a time, incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt [5]

Our church helped in small ways. We gave money to Dominion International Church in North York. You donated used crockpots and instapots which they needed since the church didn’t have a proper kitchen to feed the refugees.

And last fall, we hosted a baby shower for 24 of these African refugee mothers. 22 were still pregnant. Here’s what that looked like:

 Most of the work was done by Black women’s organizations, including the Queens of Durham. We provided the space.

On that day, some of us served as chauffeurs. I asked the mothers I drove why they chose Canada. They said that the US seemed too dangerous and unwelcoming to immigrants of colour, especially with Trump back in the picture. But most of all, one of them told me, Canada has a reputation for hospitality. I groaned a little when I heard this. I said that we weren’t doing a very good job, since our shelters were full. But she corrected me. She said she was seeing signs of that spirit of hospitality all around her. The Dominion International church where she was staying had pulled out all the stops to make her and her fellow refugees comfortable. And look at what is happening today, she said, we’re getting a baby shower.

During the baby shower, as the mothers received bassinettes, baby clothes and loads of diapers, many of the women phoned their relatives in Africa. They were overheard telling their families that the most extraordinary thing had happened. Here in Canada, absolute strangers were giving them baby things, people who weren’t family, people they had never met. Another mom told me that in her country, you pay taxes, but you never get anything back in services, like shelters. At least here there is a system. Strangers helping strangers – this amazed them.

In scripture, we see Jesus opening the door at every opportunity. His actions and words tell us that when people are in need we should help. That help can take many forms, such as providing space and money for sheltering refugees in churches and mosques. During the fall and early winter, many citizens wrote letters to federal politicians asking them to step up, to open the door and pay for the shelter of these refugees. Until just a week or so ago, the politicians responded by saying that it was up to Toronto and the province to house these people. That Toronto already gets enough money from Ottawa. [6]

But this week, Ottawa changed its tune. 

On Friday, the federal government announced it will give 143 million dollars to Toronto to pay for refugee housing in the city. 

These funds are meant to reimburse the city for what it has spent already. Another 20 million is available for providing refugees with subsidized housing. [7] The Mayor says she is pleased and hopes the federal government will pay more for this year’s refugee housing expenses. Whether that happens remains to be seen. I hope that some of that funding will go to the Black churches and mosques who went so deeply in debt providing shelter to the refugees.

What is clear is that this announcement shows that we, people of all races, have the power to make change happen. This chapter in Black history has a happier ending because churches who cared opened the door, and people all over the city, demanded that our governments open doors and wallets. Black History is still being written, and how that story goes is up to all of us. We can make the future better than the past. That power rests with us, and by following Christ’s example, we can do it.



 [1] Sarah-Jane Mathieu, North of the Color Line, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2010) p. 25ff.


[3] The Safe Third Country Agreement.


 5] Dominion International Church is December said they were in debt 800k. City Hall Press conference, Pastor Eddie Jumbo, December 22, 2023. 

[6] https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/the-head-scratching-anger-of-toronto-liberals/article_ed74f832-b621-11ee-869a-d3751cfdb22f.html; this was also the reply I received from the Justice Minister, Arif Virani, on January 10th :” The provincial government has both the responsibility and the fiscal capacity to support Toronto with its budgetary shortfall—and we have made clear to the province and the city that we expect the provincial government to do so.” His letter did not mention refugees at all. A later letter reiterated this theme, and only a third letter mentioned, suddenly, the new funding scheme.