Opening our hearts and our arms to the stranger

I attended a very challenging and inspiring webinar last week about welcoming the stranger. It was hosted by an organisation called the Evangelical Alliance and it sought to offer advice and guidance to churches as we prepare to welcome many refugees to our shores as a result of the war that continues to rage in Ukraine. 

There were representatives from the Civil Service, the police, and a number of organisations who work with refugees and asylum seekers. They had important insights and advice to share and I was very grateful for the opportunity to participate and learn from those who have more experience in this area than I do.

What we might not be aware of in the current crisis is that in recent years quite a number of asylum seekers and refugees have arrived in Northern Ireland fleeing war in countries like Eritrea, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Syria, to name but a few. Many of those who have arrived are held in city centre hotels, but have very little in terms of organised activities to help to orientate themselves to a very different culture and situation.

When we think of the challenges of living in a very different climate, where you don’t speak the language and being taken away from your livelihood, it’s a pretty difficult situation to try to contend with. If you add in homesickness and a lack of information about the whereabouts of members of your family, no income and a lack of opportunities to work or go to school, it’s a very difficult situation indeed.

The webinar was encouraging churches and congregations to do all they can to welcome these traumatised people into our society. At the present time, the finance subcommittee of the select vestry is putting together a plan to try to rent accommodation from a parishioner so that we can welcome a family in need of sanctuary. There may be others in the parish who are seeking to let rooms in their homes and we want to be able to act as a conduit for resources that might be needed like clothes, furniture, crockery and cutlery, towels and bedding. We are also trying to see if our church halls might be able to be used as  a centre for English lessons or a gathering space to enable people from Ukraine to get together and maybe the church can be used for this purpose too, if people want a space to gather and worship in their native language.

There are processes to be worked through in terms of sponsoring visa applications, but the needs are great and we would like this community to be a place of welcome and refuge for those in need at this time.

I have a little experience of being on the receiving end of such hospitality and welcome 30 years ago when I lived and worked for 2 years in Portugal. It was my first experience of living somewhere where many genuinely didn’t speak any English. The local rector, who was English, and his wife and family welcomed me and treated me like one of their family. I was welcome to come for lunch on Sundays if I wished to, the children who were bilingual would act as translators and interpreters in my conversations. The family helped me to do challenging administrational tasks like apply for an identity card which you needed for residence and open a bank account and countless other practical things.

When I got difficult and sad news that my father was terminally ill, the rector’s wife stepped in to teach my classes and enable me to go home. They helped me organise air tickets and left me to the airport. They treated, not just me, but everyone who crossed their path in this way and taught me so much about welcome and hospitality and modelling Christ like behaviour. 

One of the challenging, yet exciting things, about being the ‘church without walls’ is that we are constantly having to learn new things. The old ways in which we have lived out our church membership are often being refreshed and reinvented. A lot has been asked of people during the pandemic and yet people have responded in amazing ways. People have embraced live streaming and new technologies. Parishioners have got involved in really supporting and caring for one another – phoning people they don’t know, dropping cards, offering lifts. People’s horizons have moved way beyond our immediate church family as they have got involved in local initiatives like food banks, supporting literacy and numeracy in local schools, getting behind mental health projects, exploring questions of faith online in community. Now that people can gather together in person again, people are seeking these opportunities, adapting to new ways of doing things.

Let’s be honest about it. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s really important work. It’s the work and the mission of the Gospel to share our lives and our resources and our faith with others. Some of us might not like it and it takes us beyond our comfort zone, but it’s incumbent upon us in these days to do what we can to welcome the stranger.

We might find it challenging, but it’s nothing compared to the challenge of having to flee your home, your country, everything that is familiar to end up in a strange place where no one speaks your language. It’s important that we reach out to do what we can to make transitions easier, helping people to register with surgeries, dentists, make applications for schools.

In the coming weeks, as the situation unfolds, we are hoping to establish a Ukraine Account to finance the renting of this property to welcome a family, to support their living expenses, and preparing a list of items that may be needed to furnish the home. We hope you can help us with this as together we do the little we can which can make a real difference in someone else’s life.

Let’s remember the words of Jesus who spoke of doing what we can for the stranger and, in so doing, we do it for him. The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25 verse 40)

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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