It’s not all songs and sermons: Toronto’s Mennonites are also involved in the very practical business of finding refugees new homes.
“Give love to your friends—and your enemies,” Luis Hurtarte whispered, quietly translating as members of the Toronto Mennonite New Life Church sang in Spanish. “Everybody needs love. Love everybody like a brother or a sister.” Among the intimate congregation of about 20, a toddler, who had broken away from her family, held onto Hurtarte’s leg as he spoke. Raised by a single mother, the girl calls him “Papa,” even though they’re not related, creating a moment of harmony with the song’s message. Indeed, as other children ran around and members of the church—largely immigrants from Central and South America—embraced each other after worship, it was hard to tell who was family and who was not.
Harbouring and supporting refugees has become a tradition—a specialty, even—of Mennonite communities in North America. This focus can be traced to the group’s early hardships. During the Reformation of the 16th century, Mennonites were persecuted, exiled, and killed for radical beliefs that went against the Catholic Church. Later, after they became strictly pacifist, followers had to flee their homes during wartime and needed help wherever they landed.
The Mennonites who settled in Southern Ontario during the American Revolution housed those who came from Russia in the 1920s; they, in turn, supported German arrivals during the Second World War. Mennonites also began to help immigrants of other faiths, reaching out to refugees from the Balkans in the 1990s and, more recently, to people from China and Central America.
This practice of helping new Canadians integrate was formalized in 1983, when pastors Adolfo Puricelli and Betty Kennedy-Puricelli were invited by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario to leave their seminary in Indiana and start The New Life Centre in Toronto. Working out of their home in Little Portugal, the couple began by guiding a Salvadoran widow through the complicated sponsorship process, reuniting her with the four children she’d been separated from. Today, the non-profit agency’s roughly 35 employees work out of three locations and have provided English classes, visa and citizenship advice, mental-health care, and settlement counselling to thousands.
Hurtarte and his wife, Lili, are among the longest-standing members of the New Life Church. (Also founded by Puricelli and Kennedy, it is a separate entity from the ecumenical New Life Centre.) When the former Baptists arrived from Guatemala 30 years ago, they went to a chapel of that faith. “It was a beautiful service,” Lili said. “But when it finished, everybody disappeared. Nobody came to say, ‘Do you need anything?’ We were very sad.” The Puricelli service—initially held in their home, but now housed in the Beaches above an English-language congregation—was more interactive. “It was not in a church back then, but it had a heart,” Lili said.
That many New Life Church members were formerly of other faiths is not unusual for a Mennonite congregation. Members are Anabaptist, a term that means “one who baptizes over again.” This re-baptism takes place once a believer is an adult, a tradition that originates from early adherents’ opinion that no church authority can make a person Christian; instead, the decision is made by the individual alone. Anybody who has been baptized a Mennonite is also qualified to interpret scripture, a level of independence that even the earliest Protestants were uncomfortable with.
At the New Life Church, many of the members deliver sermons. “I call this a pastoral community,” said Eunice Yantzi, who has been interim pastor since the Puricellis moved back to Indiana last year. “There are now about 10 different people who preach.” On one Sunday in mid-January, Lili gave a sermon in Spanish on the theme of baptism. “She is telling the story of a man who dreamt about people suffering greatly,” Luis translated, explaining that, in the nightmare, the man was so afraid that he ran away. When he woke up, the man was horrified by that behaviour and decided to do the opposite in his waking life. “He became baptized as a Mennonite,” Luis said.
Yantzi says this particular Mennonite group is influenced by its Latin make-up. “We do more singing. And also, everything is on ‘Spanish time’—which means that you finish when it’s done,” she said, smirking. Long after the English service had cleared out, the New Life group concluded their morning by gathering in a circle and holding hands in prayer. Then, rather than splitting up and heading off to their separate homes, they served chicken, rice, and cake, enjoying each others’ company well into the afternoon.
Toronto Mennonite New Life Church, , 416-699-4527, mnlct.org.