Death brings to the fore the cost of having left home.
For many at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Canada is a home away from home. When death strikes, they cannot be gathered with their people in their countries of origin. Finances, dangers or immigration status can stand in the way, and many, many kilometres separate them from the places where other family can gather to visit and remember.
Along First’s outdoor wall, with the historic cemetery in view, the church has created a beautiful, restful place to honour, remember and grieve deceased family members far away. To date, 55 plaques bring those loved ones closer, and bring a global story into our congregational memory.
At a dedication service on June 24, congregants read the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob. When he died, he received a full Egyptian mourning ceremony, but his charge to his sons was to bury him in the very field that his grandfather Abraham bought, and where his grandmother, son, parents and wife are all buried. He spoke of his death this way: “I am about to be gathered to my people.” Death will not break the family bond and promise.
While those who have immigrated to Canada will not be gathered to their people in that way, First’s garden is a symbolic and concrete opportunity to be gathered with their people.
Heavy rains on June 24 meant the service was held indoors on Dedication Day. A long line of people took turns reading the names and relationship to them of their deceased loved ones. The litany of madre, padre, hermana, hermano (mother, father, sister, brother) was moving as the congregation entered into remembering loved ones buried in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, South Sudan and Honduras.
One woman said that having their names in the memorial garden makes her feel as if her parents are with her here in Canada.
Ara Gonzalía said the wall gives her a way of introducing her family to her grandkids born in Canada, of preserving their stories as part of her grandchildren’s life stories.
For others, it provides a quiet place for reflection and healing, or a spot they can photograph to let family back home know that loved ones far away are remembered in Canada by their chosen family at First, the family of faith gathered by God.