Rev Canon Dr John Higgins shares a remarkable real-life Romeo and Juliet story
It’s late May and our last day in Canada before we fly home to Scotland. We’re sitting on a bench on Granville Island, Vancouver taking in the warm afternoon sunshine and trying to eat large ice creams before they fall to the floor or rise skywards in the beak of some ever so attentive seagull.
The 'we’ consists of myself, my wife Kay, and a young married couple we first encountered quite literally half a world away in 2012. I was working in Ankara, Turkey as the priest at the Church of St Nicolas of Myra, within the British Embassy complex. Among the growing number of refugees seeking out the church was a nervous young couple who had recently arrived from Iran. They were penniless, lost, and facing an uncertain future. They were also a modern day real-life Romeo and Juliet.
The boy was from a minority sect in Islam but through patient searching and online ministry he'd become a Christian. The girl was from a large and passionately orthodox Shiite family - even worse her uncle was the presiding judge of a religious court. In secret they'd committed themselves to each other. It wasn't until they'd got married that they told their families.
The girl's family were angry beyond words. They attacked her, cracking her skull, breaking her nose, ripping off her ring and forbidding her to see him again. That night the young man escaped to Turkey and the following day 'Juliet' joined him.
They described Christianity as a faith full of ‘love and life’ - the very opposite, they said, of their experience in the world from which they’d fled
Some time later they found their way to St Nicolas and to me. In the months that followed these frightened and confused escapees from Iran grew in their faith and commitment both to one other and to Christ. Like so many of the other refugees there, they described Christianity as a faith full of ‘love and life’ - the very opposite, they said, of their experience in the world from which they’d fled.
Obviously we did not expect refugees to contribute financially to the church, but often they insisted on making a contribution in kind, and this couple took on the cleaning of the church, while at the same time attending catechism and Bible study which often went on for 2 hours or more after the Sunday Eucharist. In due course they were baptised and confirmed.
For the next two years, earning whatever few coins they could through hard, unpleasant manual work that is so often the lot of refugees in order to pay for their rent and food, they not only survived but slowly made their way through the UN’s refugee processes and then those of the Canadian embassy to which the UN has referred them. Little by little the pieces fell into place. Eventually they flew out of Turkey and on to Canada, into the pastoral care of Fr Gary and the parish of St Stephen, Burnaby, Vancouver.
That was 2 years ago. These past few days have seen both a tearful and a joyful reunion, as our paths once again crossed. Their Ankara past and their Canadian future have been given equal expression as together Fr Gary and I prayed both with them and for them.
Theirs is just one journey among so many in today’s world, but one in which the Church, it’s message of faith and love, and its ability to join hands across the world, has been central to every aspect of it. Lots of hard work lies ahead for them both as they continue to build their new lives in Canada, but they have such determination, faith and commitment to each other they will unquestionably succeed - and the faith and faithfulness of their congregation will be with them every step of the way.
Rev Canon Dr John Higgins is retired and lives in Scotland