In the fall of 2021, Catholic Charities’ Refugee Services Program established Community Sponsorships — an opportunity for local civic groups, churches and Catholic parishes to partner with Catholic Charities in welcoming refugees and helping them to integrate successfully as they rebuild their lives in their new communities.
Community Sponsors help Catholic Charities, the only local resettlement agency in mid-Missouri, connect newcomers to the resources they need to thrive. They are matched with newcomers and commit to journeying alongside them throughout the many joys and trials of resettlement. They share life together for a time, navigating the many daily, weekly and monthly tasks — from making a dental appointment to preparing for tax season — with deep care. As newcomers find self-sufficiency, their work transitions from service to friendship.
The generational work of love performed by our Community Sponsor groups has changed the course of many lives for the better and will leave a lasting imprint on each family welcomed by Catholic Charities Refugee Services, and each community that welcomes refugees. If you are interested in learning more about Community Sponsorship for your parish, family or another civic group, you can learn more at cccnmo.diojeffcity.org/community-sponsorship.
St. Thomas More Newman Parish was among the first to answer the call for Community Sponsors in the spring of 2022. This week, Father Dan Merz, pastor and Community Sponsorship group leader, shares his experience of joy as a Community Sponsor alongside his parishioners.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
My parish’s community sponsorship group was in the process of “onboarding” — ensuring each of our group members were vetted and trained — to sponsor a small group or family of evacuees from Afghanistan when Catholic Charities hosted an afternoon for their refugee clients at a bowling alley in Columbia.
The bowling trip closed out a cultural orientation presentation for newcomers; and what better way to experience local culture in the Midwest than to relax with friends and family and enjoy a few hours of bowling?
I decided to join the group and get a sense of the atmosphere and mood among the adults and children.
Some were quiet and reserved, some were talkative, some were eager to “throw” the bowling ball down the alley.
As more and more people began to arrive, I saw the usual buildup of buzz for relaxation and entertainment.
One man quietly shared with me how he and his family were forced to flee the country, and how his relatives still in Afghanistan were still in danger.
His English wasn’t perfect, but I understood him none-the-less, time we spent talking was meaningful, albeit intense.
He had been a driver for the U.S. military and had heard news of people who knew him being interrogated as to his whereabouts — members of the Taliban arriving, pounding on their doors.
During a lull in the conversation, my attention was caught by a young woman full of laughter who seemed very eager to “throw” a bowling ball down as many alleys as she could one after the other.
After a while, she ran up to me and grabbed my hand, tugging me in the direction of the arcade games, with a huge smile and saying over and over, “Please, oh please, please, please.”
She and the others had been given a few tokens, and she wanted me to guide the Crane Machine to pull up a prize for her.
Given her talent at bowling, I was sure she could work the Crane Machine better than me, but at her repeated insistence I tried — unsuccessfully, I’m embarrassed to add.
But she and her friends didn’t seem in any way disappointed.
They just seemed happy for the opportunity to enjoy some time together with no worries.
A few days later, as I was walking down the sidewalk next to the Newman Center Parish, there walking toward me was the same young woman with a couple of friends.
It was a beautiful day and they were talking and laughing, talking animatedly, and enjoying their walk.
As we drew near, she pointed at me with a shout of recognition.
Her English did not extend much beyond greetings, thank you, and “oh please,” but it was obvious that she was happy to see a familiar face.
We greeted each other and I pointed to the church building as the place where I worked.
She, of course, is Muslim, and was very respectful and interested.
It was a brief exchange, but full of smiles and joy.
It struck me, then, how full of joy she was.
Like the man I had spoken with at the bowling alley, she had also worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and was forced to flee for her life.
She had come to a foreign land, culture, and language with few friends and fewer family.
And yet, she was joyful.
And what struck me even more was how comfortable she was both in the bowling alley and on the sidewalk.
Her life up to this point had been so vastly different from mine and many who live in Columbia, yet here she was — kind, vibrant and so polite with her loose headscarf among laughing friends.
That’s when it finally dawned on me: she wasn’t afraid.
She felt secure, and that security opened a world of possibilities for her.
I don’t think her security was only based on being away from the danger of the Taliban.
It seemed deeper.
She had found a space where she could trust the people around her, and where she could trust that the situation around her wouldn’t change.
That opened up for her the possibility of making new friendships and new connections.
And in that trustful security, she was able to let her extroverted and effervescent personality shine out.
She had been given the gift of joy, but now she was able to share the gift.
And with gratitude in my own heart, I began to experience her joy, too.
Fr. Dan Merz is the pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia.
Ordained in 1998, he holds a doctorate in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Rome.
He taught courses and worked in seminary formation for 10 years at Conception Seminary College, and has also worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C.
With an appreciation for St. Thomas More Newman Parish’s tradition of justice and volunteerism, Fr. Merz approved and led the parish’s Community Sponsorship efforts to collaborate in welcoming newcomers to Columbia alongside Catholic Charities’ Refugee Services program.