The inspiring journey of Westminster United Church’s involvement in refugee sponsorship.

Westminster united church sign
Westminster United Church sign, Advent 2015. Remarking on the reviving their refugee sponsorship program]
Credit: courtesy of Sheila Dowling
Published On: October 23, 2023

Sheila Dowling, is the dedicated Chair of the Outreach Task Group at Westminster United Church in Regina, Saskatchewan. In our heartwarming virtual conversation, Sheila shared the inspiring tale of Westminster United Church’s involvement in refugee sponsorship, a tale of unstoppable dedication, of becoming agents of God’s love to help vulnerable people whose lives hang in the balance.

Westminster United Church’s commitment in sponsoring refugees dates back to 1979 when they sponsored a family of nine Vietnamese boat people. Building on this early success, the church expanded their efforts further in the 1980s by sponsoring an Afghan family of five. Throughout this period, their sustained commitment was made possible through a series of fundraising initiatives, including 7 "World Markets," concerts, as well as generous donations. These efforts enabled the church to provide financial support for the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR)* sponsorships.

Through the years, the church successfully sponsored a Karenni family of five from Myanmar (Burma) through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, their arrival in Regina doubled the size of Regina’s Karenni community from five to ten. The church also provided financial support for a Syrian sponsorship undertaken by the Roman Catholic parish.

In a spirit of unity and shared purpose, Westminster United Church willingly and voluntarily took on a significant responsibility in 2018 when Whitmore Park United Church closed. At that pivotal moment, Westminster stepped forward taking over all the sponsorships that were in progress. Through this seamless transition, the torch of compassion continued to burn brightly, ensuring the ongoing support for the sponsored families remained steadfast and unwavering.

Through Sheilas’ words, I was deeply moved by her passion and compassion. When asked about her motivation to keep taking on this role, Sheila shared a touching story about a young refugee who started learning English, after arriving to Canada. Whenever he faced challenges in spelling or pronunciation, he would ask her: “why teacher, why? why?” he affectionately referred to Sheila as “teacher.”

This led her to think “why is it? Why did he have the life experience he had? and why did I have the life experience I had?” She eloquently expressed, “So, it is merely a matter of where we’ve landed in life, and what can we do to help those in need?”

Westminster united church stained glass window
Credit: Courtesy of Westminster United Church

To highlight the resilience and determination of newcomers as they navigate the path toward successful integration into Canadian society. Sheila shared the story of a Karenni family who arrived in Canada in 2017. Despite the challenges refugees typically face upon arrival, the father, who lacked formal education, managed to secure, and maintain a job. Today, he works diligently as a driver at LORAAS DISPOSAL, a recycling service company in Regina, SK, whose owner is dedicated to employing and assisting refugees. At the same time, the mother has found her space at a nearby superstore, and “she is a real leader in her community, actively involving in event organizing.” Their three daughters, who were born in Canada, are doing fantastic in school, blossoming into remarkable individuals.

Reflecting on the family’s journey, Sheila emphasized the importance of realism. She recalled a valuable piece of advice given to her by a friend from another congregation: “Refugees are real people; don’t expect everything to be perfect when they arrive. You have to be realistic!” This wisdom underscored the need for empathy, understanding, and ongoing support for refugee families as they navigate the challenge of starting a new in a foreign land.

The driving force behind Westminster United Church’s dedication is rooted in the teachings of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Their faith, coupled with boundless love, propels them forward. Sheila continued with sharing their mission statement, “With faith in God and the love of Jesus Christ, we will make a difference in the lives we touch,” that embodies their commitment to fostering a supportive environment for newcomers. These principles guide their actions, reminding the world of the profound impact that helping and acceptance can have on lives.

As Westminster United Church continues to extend a helping hand, they inspire us all to embrace the diversity of humanity and create a community where everyone feels valued and welcomed.

*The Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) Program matches refugees identified for resettlement by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with private sponsors in Canada. It is a cost-sharing arrangement whereby IRCC and private sponsors contribute financially to support the refugees.

—Mimi Nahhas, Refugee Support Program for The United Church of Canada

This article was originally shared in the Refugee Sponsorship Newsletter. Subscribe and stay connected.

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.