Aid for refugees blossoms at parish

Sunday, April 23, 2017 - Updated: 5:00 am
By Jennifer Monahan Correspondent

Part 3 of a series.

During the past two weeks, this series has highlighted the plight of Syrian refugees and the story of Ananias Mission, a Pittsburgh-based organization working to help refugees resettle in safe areas.

A number of parishes in the area have collaborated with Ananias Mission in their fund-raising and educational efforts. St. James Parish in Sewickley is among the faith communities visited by Ed Wethli and Jennifer Allison of Ananias Mission.

Since welcoming Ananias Mission to St. James Parish in Sewickley almost a year ago, the community has raised more than $50,000 to assist Syrian refugees in finding safe havens.

Karen Conroy, director of religious education at the parish, first learned about Ananias Mission from Ellen Mady, former director of the diocesan Department for Human Life and Dignity. Conroy was intrigued enough to meet personally with Ed Wethli and Jennifer Allison of Ananias Mission and a Syrian friend of Wethli’s, who fled Syria in 2014.

Conroy said she left their meeting in tears after hearing some of the stories that the trio shared about the conditions facing Christians and Muslims in Syria.

“I immediately knew we had to help,” she said. Conroy credits the pastor of St. James, Father Tom Burke, for his strong and immediate support of her educational efforts regarding the Syrian refugee crisis.

The weekend of May 21-22, 2016, Wethli shared the story of Ananias Mission at each of the parish Masses. Parishioners donated $8,000 through a special collection that weekend. Some large additional donations came in afterward from parishioners who wanted to assist.

“When Ed came to speak last year, people really took it to heart,” Father Burke said. “The desire to help refugees has blossomed in this parish.”

Parishioners have invested not only their financial resources but their energy. One parishioner, Michelle Gallagher, even traveled to Canada with Wethli and Allison to visit some of the people who have received help from the St. James community through Ananias Mission.

“People have given so much of their time,” Conroy said. “Michelle Gallagher, Michelle Saad and Emily Lyons have formed our Syrian Refugee Committee at the parish, and they really spearheaded our efforts.”

Bethany Marek, a young mom at St. James, heard Wethli speak at Mass. She has followed the progress of the refugees who are being helped by the parish’s fund-raising efforts and felt called to start volunteering with Ananias Mission.

“My heart just goes out to every refugee,” Marek said. “I’m an American, and a privileged person. Volunteering is something I can do to help.”

Father Burke said parishioners have taken ownership of the refugee issue. Volunteer efforts are happening across all ages and ministries within the parish, including among St. James’ youngest members.

Following the initial presentation by Ananias Mission, Conroy invited Allison to talk with vacation Bible school participants last summer about the group’s work. After hearing about some of the hardships facing families in Syria, the children wanted to help. Through its service activities, the vacation Bible school children raised more than $6,000 to benefit Syrian refugees.

Wethli and Allison have been grateful for the community’s incredible response.

“The St. James parishioners have made a huge difference for Syrian refugees,” Allison said. “Their generosity made it possible for more Syrians to be sponsored to come to Canada where they could live safely and practice their Christian faith freely. It also sent a strong message that Americans care and that we haven’t forgotten about innocent Syrians.”

Conroy planned to have Wethli and Allison talk to students in the religious education program during Lent, and then have the catechists and children come up with a service project related to helping refugees.

Conroy’s commitment is a driving force behind the parish’s efforts, according to Father Burke and Allison.

“Karen knew that if the parishioners at St. James had a way to make a difference in the Syrian crisis that they would step up and answer the call for help,” Allison said. “She has worked tirelessly to help us connect with people who want to support our work, and she’s a wonderful example of how one person can set a huge outpouring of generosity into motion.”

Father Burke said that responding to the refugee crisis is consistent with the Catholic community’s pro-life stance.

“This issue took my heart, too,” Father Burke said. “We are all pro-life here, and these are living, breathing human beings — our brothers and sisters. We have to take care of them.”

To find out more about Ananias Mission or invite them to speak to a parish group, contact Jennifer Allison at jennifer.l.allison@gmail.com.

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