Mary Jo Leddy shows us the face of the stranger

  • October 21, 2011

TORONTO - Mary Jo Leddy, co-founder of Toronto's Romero House, has discovered a school for Christian living. She has learned to live a Christian life by spending her days and nights among people who have been cut adrift by the violent politics and harsh economics we are usually sheltered from in Canada.

Leddy launched her new book The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home [click here to buy] at Regis College Oct. 20. The book is a spiritual guide to the practical, legal and bureaucratic process of settling refugees in this country. She has spent more than 20 years struggling against what she calls the bureaucratic absurdities and moral blindness of Canada's refugee system.

"Systems supposedly designed to do good develop routines of indifference, procedures for acceptable cruelty," she writes in the 150-page Novalis book.

But she doesn't just blame the bureaucrats. All of us take part in the sins of bureaucracy.

"Most people in North America live and move within systems of indifference in which no one seems responsible," she writes. "Hannah Arendt describes it as an 'onion structure' in which there are layers upon layers with nothing and no one in the centre."

For Leddy, working with refugees represents the opportunity to shake off that spiritual and moral numbness. The willingness of the Church to take on refugees has been a great unifier of Catholics and all Christians in Canada, and a source of life for the Church, Leddy told The Catholic Register at the book launch.

"It's the single most broadly based social outreach work the Church does," she said.

Conservatives and liberals, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox have all worked, often side-by-side, to help refugees get into Canada and then settle and integrate into Canadian society.

"It's something the Church does very well," she said.

When Romero House opened in 1992 its focus was Central American refugees from the chaotic and incredibly violent wars that had raged through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua since the 1970s. But immediately it found itself open to the world, hosting refugees from every continent.

Today, as churches across Canada revitalize their refugee offices, the focus is the Middle East, especially Iraq. But Leddy believes the starting point doesn't matter so much.

"Any openness to any refugees is a good thing," she said. "As long as it doesn't exclude others."

At the book launch Leddy was greeted by old friends who had passed through Romero House. Hidat Mosa from Eritrea was among the first to find refuge at Romero House. Since she landed there in the early ’90s she has become a nurse and raised three children.

"Romero House was very important for me," she said.

Alexandra Jimenez came from Colombia almost 10 years ago and is still at Romero House every day, now as the organization's accountant. Staying close to her first Canadian home has been important for Jimenez.

"It's the family we don't have here," she said.

Leddy, who has a PhD in philosophy and is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, said she wrote the book for the "thoughtful Christian." It's not an academic treatise with an undergrowth of footnotes and obscure references. Rather she taps into Church tradition to guide the spiritually curious.

"It's a long scriptural tradition and teaching that in welcoming the stranger we are blessed," she said. "The Church will be blessed and has been blessed (by refugees)."

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