The summer I arrived at Kinbrace, I brought Aila to a camp on one of British Columbia’s southern Gulf Islands. I had grown up returning to this summer camp each year. It had seaside trails that I knew by heart and pocked sandstone shores that my friends and I would turn into crab-sized condos.
I also brought two other young girls who were Aila’s neighbours at Kinbrace. I thought — perhaps naively — that this would be a wonderful getaway for the three of them… a chance for them to meet new friends, enjoy the beauty of the outdoors, and try new activities like archery and sailing. Maybe the change of scene would even allow them to forget about their precarious status in Canada and just be kids again.
After a couple nights, it was clear that summer camp was no getaway, and there would be no simple forgetting. One of the girls, Przha, had disappeared from the evening campfire. After some searching, Aila found her alone in their cabin, crying. A moment later, a few of her new friends arrived and gathered around her bunk, sitting on the wood plank floor. It was clear that Przha had confided in them about her family’s uncertain status in Canada. “Allah is caring for your family, Przha,” Aila offered. “Everything will happen in the right time, inshallah. Sometimes we don’t understand these things until later.” As she spoke, Aila gently placed a hand on Przha’s shoulder. Another girl passed tissues and chimed in, “God is with you, Przha. You’re not alone.” A silence followed her words, which was held for a duration atypical for teenage girls.
Then the grief was diffused — or at least dismissed for the night — as Aila whispered a joke in Przha’s ear. The silence was broken, and more tissues were needed for welcome tears of laughter.
Two weeks later, Aila and I were in the backyard at Kinbrace, saying goodbye. She and her sister were about to move into their permanent home. They wouldn’t be going far, but I was going to miss her. We reflected on our week together at camp and all the new experiences she’d had (like being towed behind a speedboat in an innertube, screaming as frigid salty spray hit her face). Then she paused. “That night that we were sitting in the cabin with Przha and the other girls,” she began, “…do you think that we were praying together?” I nodded. “Yes, I think we were.”
I had brought Aila and Przha to my childhood summer camp, thinking it would be an escape from the burdens they carried on behalf of their families. But on the floor of their cabin that evening, Aila and Przha taught me that in prayer, the aim is not to escape, but to enter into our raw and real pain and discover—together—the presence of God.
We are sojourners
The community of Kinbrace is rooted in the Christian tradition, inspired by a welcoming God who knows forced displacement firsthand.⁹ The community of Kinbrace, however, is not a Christian community per se, but one made up of a rich medley of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, agnostics… you name it. In our diversity, we each approach the idea and practice of prayer differently — it may be natural and assumed, foreign and perplexing, or anywhere in between.
We choose to orient ourselves around the value of prayer in part because it transcends the boundaries of religious belief systems; it is a way of being rather than a way of believing. While belief can become abstract and exclusionary, prayer remains invitational. Rather than focusing on right belief, prayer invites us into right relationship with ourselves, with our neighbours, with God, and with all of creation. Prayer is less about how we pray and more about what happens to us when we pray.
When we pray, we remember who we are — and we discover a shared identity with newcomers that runs even deeper than kinship. We are all sojourners. The word itself refers to a person who is far from home, living in a place that is not their own and dependent on the welcome of others.¹⁰ Only two generations ago, this was my family’s story. Most of us who are in a position to extend welcome to displaced people were very recently in need of welcome ourselves. Displacement is woven into our family histories and into our spirits.
Prayer is a practice for people on the move, for displaced people, for the multiplicity of us. It is a practice for our new neighbours who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are desperate to find safety and belonging. It is an equally important practice for those of us who, due to favorable circumstances, live with the false security of being settled and secure.
Prayer both unsettles us and offers us rest. It unsettles those of us who are comfortable, uprooting us from complacency and causing us to acknowledge our belonging to a wounded world. When we pray, we allow our eyes to be opened to our own responsibility for the suffering of others rather than shifting the blame to politicians and unjust systems. It shakes us awake from illusions of isolation, as if our actions have no impact on others. Prayer is also an offer of rest — rest in the midst of an anxiety-inducing refugee claim process or rest from the endless pursuit of a more just world.
In the Kinbrace community, we remember that we are sojourners when we pause our work to pray on Thursday mornings. Before our weekly staff meeting begins, we gather to reflect, listen to one another, and be nourished by God in our midst. Each month we are led by a different team member, who chooses a theme and facilitates a series of reflections. Month-to-month, these times of prayer look very different. Sometimes we walk around the neighbourhood and take photos, returning to show each other something that spoke to us. Other times we hear Scripture or listen to music or read poetry or write journal entries, reconnecting to the “why” behind what we do. Whatever prayer looks like, it is a conscious ceasing from our work in order to remember our belonging to one another and to the God who guides us.
Held by grace
If there is one core value that sits at the heart of all the others, it is prayer. Welcome, trust, mutual transformation, and celebration depend on our connection to a deeper reality, one that both comprehends and transcends forced displacement: we are held by grace.
I need reminders of this simple phrase on difficult days. Like the time I accompanied a beloved neighbour to Vancouver International Airport and hugged her one last time, knowing that she would be returning to imminent danger in her home country. Or the day my friend, Ahmad, was diagnosed with a serious health condition and came back to Kinbrace, not knowing where else to go with the weighty burden of this news. Or multiple experiences of sitting with a mother while she told me about the feeling of being separated from her children, uncertain of when she would see them again.
In each of these experiences, if I were looking for a source of distraction from the realities of forced displacement, prayer would not be the place to find it. Instead, as I learned from Aila and Przha, prayer is a source of solace in the midst of suffering. It is the place where we stop, not to recoil from our external realities, but to venture further in, finding, at the centre of it all, the life-sustaining love of a God who knows suffering firsthand.
Prayer is less about how we pray, and more about what happens to us when we pray.
When we venture to the centre, facing suffering head on, we may find that just when it feels like the story is over, it somehow continues. Grace often follows right on sorrow’s heels. Perhaps the day finishes with a small gift from a child, or a spontaneous shared dinner in the living room, or a conversation so rich it might as well be a meal. There is human resilience at work in each of us, but it is the presence of God that sustains us, enabling us to receive welcome, risk trust, experience mutual transformation, and celebrate — over and over again.
We journey into the mystery and love of God
Each Tuesday evening as we prepare to sit down to a meal together, we form a circle and pray — sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English. With the fragrance of the food wafting from the kitchen and amidst the murmurs of hungry children, we thank God for the goodness of this shared meal, and we ask for protection for family members who are far away. We pause to turn towards God and each other.
Left to our own devices in places of pain, sorrow, loss, and violence, we can easily end up discouraged and embittered. The invitation to pray is an invitation to openness, to boldly trust that — in all the suffering we witness and even the suffering we inflict on others — there is more going on than meets the eye. We are not, after all, left to our own devices.
Prayer opens us to the possibility that the world is, indeed, created and sustained by love, and in all our human experience of suffering and joy, we are held by a mighty and tender God. As we let this deeper reality reshape the way we see the world and interact with people, prayer becomes an invitation into our own transformation.
A year after I arrived at Kinbrace, I began a twelve-month prayer practice called the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. The “exercise” was silence — one hour of it each day where I was invited to place myself imaginatively into the stories of the life of Christ. There were a number of occasions where these hours were not-so-silent — “Look!” a child would burst through my door with a picture he’d just coloured or with the predictable plea, “Auntie, come jump with me on the trampoline!” I came to be grateful for these “interruptions,” seeing them not as distractions from prayer, but indeed part of prayer. After all, it was St. Ignatius himself who taught that prayer is “finding God in all things.”
Prayer draws us into our common identity — even kinship — with people who are forcibly displaced. Refugee claimants do not journey alone. The God we encounter in prayer is not just an interested outsider, but an intimate companion to those who experience forced displacement. When we meet this God, we meet our neighbour. Prayer becomes the place where we find ourselves mysteriously knit together as family, and from this discovery of our belonging to one another, compassion and action freely flow.
What is your own practice (or a practice you admire) of ceasing work and resting on the journey?
Who or what reminds you that you are held by grace?
Have you ever felt displaced, out-of-place, or far from home? How did love sustain you?
⁹ We read in the gospel account of Matthew that, after the birth of Jesus and the visit of the magi, his parents fear for his life and are forced to flee their homeland and seek safety in Egypt. Jesus was a refugee.
¹⁰ Both sojourner and stranger come from the Hebrew word “gēr” in the Old Testament.