The city parishes where I live and work are a vibrant and incredibly diverse community of people from every imaginable ethnic, cultural and faith background. Among them are many who have come to the UK in search of asylum, seeking freedom and protection from persecution in their home countries.
I get to hear something of their stories, but some just cannot speak about what they’ve left behind, or fled from. Discussing the baptismal question: Do you renounce evil? one candidate once said to me: ‘I’m sorry, but this is all just too hard for me to talk about’.
From my life of freedom and comfort and privilege and luxury, I can do little more than attempt to imagine the horrors – the evil – that that particular baptism candidate may have been concealing in those quiet words of apology for non-participation. I have tried to read and educate myself to better understand the countries and cultures from which some of the asylum seekers arriving in the UK come. With a better understanding of the reality in many other countries today, I realise how impossible it is, for someone like me, to try and imagine what people arriving here to seek asylum may already have experienced in their lives.
I feel prompted to pray for those who suffer in the struggle and difficulty that is the asylum system in this country. And, as I do so, I am frequently brought back to the many occasions in scripture when God’s people are commanded to show special care for the stranger – for the alien resident in our midst.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19:33-34 (NRSV)
In my desire (and sense of God’s call) to serve the needs of people seeking asylum here, I spent some time yesterday in discussion with one of the staff of a local charity serving destitute asylum seekers. Boaz Trust – whose founder, Dave Smith has recently published this excellent book on the subject – provide housing, advocacy and practical support (food, toiletries and other essential items) to many in our city. I wanted to find out if and how we might do more to help those living in our local community.
The whole issue of immigration (including asylum seekers) has become a hugely contentious one in UK society today, and a political hot potato as the 2015 elections approach. But I can’t help but hope that, whatever anyone’s personal views on asylum, we might all pause and consider the real human beings behind the headlines and the statistics.
You may not share my Christian conviction and therefore not be much persuaded to live according to an ancient biblical command from the Hebrew scriptures. But it does seem to me that loving others, whoever they are, however they connect with our own lives, is the way for the whole of humanity to live together in the world – whatever our faith tradition or lack thereof.