Safe Spaces

My wife really enjoys property programmes and, sometimes, in spite of my attempts to appear disinterested, I am amazed at what people can do with imagination and creativity to transform their homes.

As the architects and experts make their way around, they often talk about a room being a delightful space or a welcoming space and I like that description.

As some people will be aware, we have been trying in our church to welcome a family from Ukraine to the local area. With the help of the church family, we hope to rent a local property and support a family from Mariupol, as they move from temporary accommodation in Warsaw where they fled via Russia and Latvia. The whole process has been quite a learning curve.

The visa application process has been complex and unwieldy. Back in early April, we had five people from the congregation working together on separate devices filling in the applications for our family that we have been in contact with. Appointments were made with the immigration centre in Warsaw to upload documents and we were under the impression that these applications would be processed very quickly.

Having heard nothing for many weeks, we contacted a local MLA. I joined a closed Facebook group for other church and community groups who are also seeking to welcome individuals and families from Ukraine and share advice and best practice. I found my self giving an interview to a news programme that had heard of what the church was attempting to do. This prompted others to get in touch and share what they had done in processing the paperwork for the families they were welcoming. This, in turn, led to an appointment with an immigration lawyer from the Law Centre working from the Ukraine Welcome Centre operated by the Belfast City Council.

This was a most impressive, welcoming space. When we had our appointment last week, they had had their busiest day since the centre opened. From the security guard who welcomed us outside the building, to the member of staff who looked after us until the lady we were scheduled to meet was free, everyone looked after us so well. They welcomed Ukrainian families and their hosts, directing them to various parts of the building which offered advice about healthcare, education and benefits and completing visa applications.

There was a creche on the first floor where parents could leave their children safely while they made their way around the various people they needed to speak to.

There were interpreters seeking to help those struggling with the language barrier, tea and coffee were on offer and everyone from the council were welcoming and supportive to families who had endured dreadful journeys and harrowing experiences in fleeing from the war.

It was a real learning experience for the ‘church without walls’ to see the way the council had risen to this new and unexpected challenge. They seemed to have embraced an approach that spoke of empathy and compassion. They were keen to set up a centre and a system that imagined what it would be like to arrive in a land where you knew no one, didn’t speak the language and tried to facilitate people with some of the things most necessary to everyday life – accessing healthcare, benefits and opening a bank account. There was information about applying to schools and leaflets in Ukrainian and translators who seemed to move around responding to anyone who had needs or questions.

This was, indeed, a safe space for those who found themselves in a nightmare situation and it was filled with pastoral, kind and welcoming people.

It left me with a really good and positive impression of what the council are trying to do?

I’ve recently been participating in a pilot scheme for mental health that has the goal of helping churches to be a safe space for people to discuss their mental health. The material is powerful and I’m finding the experience of sharing this course called the Sanctuary Course to be a really helpful one. We are trying to determine whether it would work in a church and community context, where small groups would find this safe space to talk about things that are hugely important.

Some years ago, I took part in a similar project run by Christians Against Poverty called the Money Course. It was designed to give some helpful and practical advice about managing our personal finances, budgeting and saving and the like. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about things like these – our finances, perhaps our debts, our mental health, what it’s like to feel like an outsider, whether because of our ethnicity or sexual orientation or some physical or mental problems we might be experiencing in our lives.

What has the ‘church without walls’ to learn from the Ukraine Welcome Centre or other agencies that seek to offer those safe spaces to talk about difficult things?

In his relationship with his twelve disciples it seems that no topic was off limits as Jesus shared his life with these twelve men. They lived and worked together. They learned as they did the work of ministry, praying for and healing the sick, preaching and teaching, speaking out against injustice and hypocrisy. They sought to build a better kingdom.

Can we seek to create safe spaces where people feel welcome, accepted, heard and understood as they cross the threshold? It’s not an easy thing to offer those who think and act differently to ourselves. It takes courage to risk being misunderstood and stand up for what we understand to be Jesus’s way.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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