28) The Trouble with Our Street Preaching | Alison Witt (Part 1)

Last week, we explored the oft-misunderstood phrase "Jesus saves." This week, prompted by the shouts of downtown street preachers and by being personally challenged on his take on the gospel, Mark suggests that Christians are making a significant mistake. When we present the gospel by leading with some theological premise of an atonement theory pulled from a larger logical argument in Scripture (i.e. "Jesus died for your sins"), we abandon the example of Jesus himself, who simply introduced the character of God. It's time for us to reconsider our heavy focus on syllogisms from Paul or other theology teachers and model the message of Jesus: God's favour rests on every living person, and forgiveness is already extended without condition. Now that... is something to shout from the streetcorners.

Then Mark sits down with Alison Witt, one of the founders of Micah House in Hamilton - a place where refugees are immediately welcomed every year for food, shelter, and community as they suddenly find themselves in a new country. In this week's Part 1 of the conversation, Alison talks about how from a very young age God was priming her for the work of welcoming and walking alongside people of different cultures seeking to become acclimated to a new one. From her parents' inviting international students home for the holidays, to her moving to the Philippines for 10 years, to helping new Canadian students after school, to becoming involved with refugees one family at a time, Alison tells the story of how relationships unfolded into a vision, and a vision unfolded into a home where families torn from their country could find new beginnings.


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Notable Quotes from Alison Witt

"I did feel always this, kind of, pull to other cultures and cross-cultural stuff. I had always been I think intrigued by – we would have missionaries come to our church and show their slideshows.... and there was something about that that just really drew me in."

"Because we were these immigrants that didn't have any other family we kind of felt the experience of being alone. And my parents ended up having a lot of international students from McMaster in our home. So in my childhood every Christmas and every Thanksgiving was a whole whack of people from China and people from Singapore.... we had a lot of people that I think my parents identified as 'they are alone here and don't have family to celebrate with.' And I think that shaped me. Looking back, I think it probably added to that interest in other cultures."

"A big part of shaping my faith has come out of that 10 years in the Philippines and just learning to experience life and faith through a different cultural lens."

"If you're a poor Filipino woman living in a slum area, how you understand a certain Scripture is different than the way I have understood it growing up in suburban Dundas, right? And so there's a richness that comes out of that: 'Oh, there is a whole layer here that I've been missing that you now bring because of your life experience, but it's the same Scripture.'"

"Certainly I think now being back in Canada and working with newcomers here, I feel like [living in the Philippines] has given me a heightened sensitivity to what they are experiencing having been on the other side. Because I know people who have been in Canada for 10 years, but because of the color of their skin people ask them, 'Oh, so where are you from? When did you arrive...?' Or they've been here 20 years or maybe they were born here, but people still treat them like outsiders. And how alienating that is."

"We came back [to Canada] kind of still wanting to do urban ministry of some shape or form. And I guess we probably spent the first year floundering, but figuring out, 'what does poverty look like in Canada?' Because yes there's definitely poverty in Canada – and Hamilton – but it looks different than in Manila. And 'who's doing what?' and 'where the gaps?' And for us, specifically looking at churches, 'how are churches engaging poverty in their neighborhoods?'"

"Rick [Tobias] and others that are doing this kind of work here in Canada too have helped us see the whole relational aspect of poverty here in Canada. And the shame, too, is huge. In the Philippines, because poverty is so extensive – in Manila, 30% or more of the population are poor, so there's not the same shame necessarily. Whereas in Hamilton, there is somehow a stigma attached that somehow you're morally a failure if you're poor. Those kinds of things really stood out to us."

"We settled on the north end of Hamilton as a place where there was need, but also there were some key churches really doing some good stuff that we could come alongside. And so we began doing some grassroots stuff here. For me, that ended up being a lot of stuff connected with a local school, and they were saying one of their greatest needs was some of the ESL students. And so we ended up doing some afterschool programming - academic or educational enrichment specifically for ESL students. So we did this after school thing, and from that we started visiting the families - the kids' homes. We met moms who were pretty isolated and again, maybe had been here for years but still not speaking English themselves and not having any friends."

"So I would say all of the families I've ever visited, they love having visitors and they miss that because that happened all the time - that was part of their culture is people just show up at your door and come. You don't have to have an appointment; you don't have to book it three weeks in advance and put it in your calendar! You just show up. And so when we would just show up - and because we were helping their kids – they are happy that we're there. And it's like, 'Come in! Have tea! Have some samosas!' or whatever. And we met some women - that was 14 years ago - that still would say we are in friendship with them."

"[The terms 'immigrant' and 'refugee' are] at some points blurred and sometimes I would throw them together in the sense of, after you get here, to a large degree a lot of your settlement needs are kind of the same for everybody, and yet for sure refugees come with specific stuff that gives them additional barriers and needs."

"Maybe it's learning English, maybe it's looking for jobs, connecting in the community – all these things for any newcomer would all share those. But I think it is harder for refugees in many senses - the biggest thing being that they are not choosing to come here. So refugees are forced to leave their home, their country, and often very quickly. Often not with a lot of planning and often after having experienced a lot of trauma. So there is often a lot of psychological damage because of what they've experienced."

"A lot of people still don't feel safe even though they're here and so they can't necessarily call back home and talk to people, because they don't want people to know where they are."

"It was all new for me. I think the cross-cultural aspect because of my past background was not so new, but learning about refugee stuff was very new for me. And so there was this kind of steep learning curve of 'who are refugees?' and 'how does it work?"

"It was this gradual unraveling of hearing bits of people's stories. Because for the most part they wouldn't tumble out the whole story in one sitting, but you just hear snippets of how they had to leave or.... Even within refugees, there are some that are coming from refugee camps that our government has selected to bring here, and so there is really settled refugees that maybe spent 10 years in a refugee camp. and then there's others that just, 'Oh, you just kind of showed up and then had to go through the process.' So those we call refugee claimants. And just hearing their stories and doing research and learning to put labels and language on that and then finding others - there were a few of us in Hamilton who were all uncovering this at the same time. And then connecting with St. Matthew House in Toronto - others that were already doing some stuff."

"That is what they call warehousing refugees – there's this whole language that people end up in refugee camps for often their lifetime – for 10 or 20 years because there's nowhere for them to go. They can't return to their home and there is such a small percentage that are resettled to another country that they are basically going to be warehoused in this refugee camp for decades."


Next Week's Episode 29

Guest (Part 2): Alison Witt, founder of Micah House Hamilton