This past March, a team of eight from three churches in Hamilton travelled to Lebanon to serve at a children’s day camp for Syrian refugee children along the Lebanon and Syria border.
It’s a fascinating story of local and international partnership that has been growing among churches in the Hamilton area. The Lebanon connection began in 2016, when Leanne Friesen, Lead Pastor at Mount Hamilton Baptist, approached Wentworth Baptist Church and Little Bethel Community Church to partner with them in STEP [Serving, Training, Energizing Partnerships] – a CBM program that moves beyond the traditional ‘pay and pray’ funding model and facilitates a meaningful relationship between Canadian churches and international partners in the developing world.
At the time, each of the three churches was looking for a meaningful way to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Mount Hamilton is one of the city’s major churches with a congregation of over 300. As the leader, Leanne realized it would be difficult for smaller churches like Wentworth (avg. 75) and Little Bethel (avg. 30) to commit to STEP’s financial requirement of $10,000 per year for three years, as well as the required short-term ministry trip to meet and serve alongside their international church partner. So, they asked, “Why not do this together?”
Seán McGuire, Lead Pastor of Wentworth Baptist, agreed. He saw how the joint STEP partnership would create opportunities to serve in corners of the world previously unreachable to his congregation. “We were hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis and wondering, ‘How can we be God’s hands and feet in the midst of these crises that are happening in the Middle East?’ and then Lebanon came up.”
Debbie Iverson, lead pastor of Little Bethel, was also on board and thankful for such an opportunity. “Little Bethel is a small church. We could never be a blessing like this,” she said, tearfully. “We have been given the possibility and Little Bethel is very grateful to be part of the blessing.”
On a previous pastor’s trip to Lebanon, Leanne saw the plight of refugees and learned about the struggles of the host country overwhelmed with the large numbers in their midst and the challenges of historic animosities between Syrians and Lebanese – Syria sought to weaken the Lebanese government for regional control, fuelling a 15-year civil war (1975-1990), the invasion of Lebanon in 1976 and the occupation of the country for 29 years (until 2005).
Currently, there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a small country with a total population of 6.2 million. As a result, the Church has stepped in to fill the gaps. “It was the Christian Church in Lebanon that said we have to meet this need and what’s really incredible is that they’ve had to love their enemies,” says Leanne, who witnessed this love firsthand during her trip.
With the STEP partnership, 75 percent of the Canadian church’s contribution is allocated to areas of focus determined by CBM in consultation with the international partner and 25 percent of funds go directly to the area of focus chosen by the Canadian church partners.
The Hamilton churches chose the day camps, led by Baptist Children and Youth Ministry (BCYM), because there are over 250,000 Syrian refugee children [Human Rights Watch] who are without education in Lebanon. The Lebanese government does not provide education to children in refugee camps. The day camps provide a crucial place for kids to learn, play and experience God’s love and care. The mission team looked forward to serving with BCYM, who run the camps almost every week of the year, and were in much need of a respite.
The three Hamilton churches worked together to organize bake sales, music nights and soup Sundays to raise funds; planned a short-term ministry trip to Lebanon and ultimately created deeper connections spanning a city and tangible relationships across the world.
This is Mount Hamilton’s second STEP partnership [its first was in Kenya], but it’s their first joint partnership. “It’s just been better with others. It’s been about what it means to be thinking about the kingdom and not our own work. And to see all kingdom work as our work. To see Wentworth and Little Bethel thriving in mission is really exciting for us,” says Leanne.
STEP has also renewed her congregation’s enthusiasm for global mission, which had been dwindling in recent years. “I never thought I’d hear members of our church saying, ‘Did you hear what’s happening in Lebanon?’”
Seán was co-leader of this year’s mission trip to Lebanon. It was his first short-term mission and he was thrilled to be able to share in the experience with his wife Jessica, who is the Youth Pastor at Mount Hamilton. Prior to becoming Lead Pastor at Wentworth, he interned as a student pastor under Leanne’s leadership at the church. But the connection doesn’t end there. Nearly a century ago, Wentworth Baptist, a downtown church, planted Mount Hamilton, on top of the city’s escarpment. “It’s been fantastic to serve alongside [the other churches],” says Seán. “It’s not just the story of our church, it’s the story of a few churches in Hamilton. It becomes a city story and a witness to the unity of the church, which in our day and age is a pretty important witness.”
Doing Local Mission Together
The STEP partnership is not the first time these three churches (Mount Hamilton, Wentworth, Little Bethel) have banded together to serve. Every Christmas, they work together to fill hampers for those in need.
This past year, they were inspired to expand their hamper program from 130 local hampers to include 30 hampers for those struggling in their Lebanese partner church’s congregation.
They are among the 17 churches in Hamilton that work together through a movement called TrueCity – a shared vision for local churches to collaborate for the good of the city.
Some of their initiatives have included work on the downtown bike lane development, running Ride for Refuge in support of ministries that serve the vulnerable and hosting an annual conference. The Hamilton City Council has even been known to call upon a TrueCity representative to speak on behalf of the Church, from time to time.
Wentworth Baptist’s TrueCity connection inspired the congregation to renovate its manse and begin a partnership with Micah House to give large refugee families coming to Canada access to affordable short-term housing.
TrueCity is the reason I call Hamilton home, says Leanne Friesen, lead pastor at Mount Hamilton Baptist, and chair of this year’s TrueCity Conference. “I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a city where there’s such a deep and intentional camaraderie between churches…a sense of collective mission.”
It was TrueCity partnerships that inspired Leanne to imagine the joint STEP partnership with Little Bethel and Wentworth. “[TrueCity] taught us to ask: Is there a way we can do this together?”