February Thoughts

A short month but definitely a thoughtful month.

I found myself remembering a personal anniversary at the start of the month and shared some thoughts for the many others whose lives are affected by cancer.

And, as these dark winter days have gradually begun to move towards longer, lighter spring days, I’ve enjoyed time for reading – both vicar-type reading as well as other books, including my first for the Africa Reading challenge.  But there’s so much more I’m wanting to find the time to read as well.  Bible reading has prompted me to post two different Words from the Word this month.

And Lent has made several appearances as you might expect on a vicar’s blog.  The 40 acts challenge to ‘Do Lent Generously’ is a particular focus for this year – I’d love to see more and more people, Christian or not, join in and see communities and relationships built up as generosity really does beget more generosity.

And how about you?  What’s been the focus on your blog this last month?  Which posts should I drop by and read?

For January Thoughts, click here.

Reading Africa: Nigeria

imageBeing a vicar in two parishes with people from all over the world, I’ve decided to be much more intentional about reading the world in the year ahead.  Since quite a number of our church family come from various countries in Africa, and I realise I’ve read very little from Africa, I loved discovering Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading challenge and have signed up. The challenge is simply to read 5 books from, or about, different African countries in the course of a year. Now that must be manageable, especially as I’ve just finished my first and February isn’t quite over yet.

imageI started in Nigeria (or should I say Biafra?) with a book by an author I discovered last year who immediately joined my favourite authors’ list. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is her 2007 Orange Fiction prizewinning second novel set in the late 1960s at the time of the Nigerian-Biafran war.  It tells the story of the build-up to the war and of the conflict itself through the eyes of three main characters: a young Igbo woman from an elite background, her young houseboy, and a white British male university professor.  Each of them passes through various experiences that reflect the particular horror of those years, but their stories also feature love, family life and the day-to-day normality of life, albeit in a context of conflict.

The author has such a wonderfully readable style.  She captures details in such a way that a reader like me, who has never set foot in Nigeria, can picture the settings in which these events unfold.  And she builds detail into her characters – not only the main characters – so the reader develops real empathy and concern for all that is happening to them.

I came away from this book having enjoyed, but also been challenged by, a very good story.  The challenge came because, although it is a work of fiction, I’ve no doubt it draws on real experiences lived by those who lived through those years of Nigeria’s history.  And so I came away better informed too.  That gap in my historical knowledge – I knew the name Biafra but knew nothing of what it stood for.  And I hope I now better understand the different tribal groupings in Nigeria and the sensitivities that will still be present in that community today.

I think anyone with any kind of interest in reading about lives lived through real historical events would enjoy this book.  And I think many of us would benefit from a better understanding of the history of a great country like Nigeria.

As for my next African read, I’ve got a few possibilities lined up.  I could stay in West Africa and move across to Ghana with Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. Or perhaps I’ll head north to read Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret. There are also some South African books on the list and others too.  And I’m keen to visit Malawi, Cameroon and Uganda because we have parishioners from each of those countries in our church family here.

So where would you suggest I head next?

Asylum in the UK today

The Refugee Council has just issued a top ten list of facts about asylum in the UK which draws on the government’s own migration statistics for 2014.

IMG_0438All of them bother me for a variety of reasons.  Are we really only rich enough as a country to offer safety and a new start to 143 of the 4 million Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflicts in that country?  Why all the anti-asylum rhetoric when we only got half the applications France received last year and a mere 31,000 to Germany’s 166,000? Are we to accept that the Home Office got more than a quarter of initial asylum decisions wrong (the percentage of appeals granted in 2014). Since I personally know of at least one appeal that was refused last year that is back in the appeals process for 2015 – and I’m guessing it’s not the only one – then we might assume the 28% is likely to be an underestimate.  And I surely can’t be the only one appalled to learn that half of all asylum seekers can expect to find themselves detained under lock and key at some point during the process? And what kind of country are we to be locking up 99 asylum seeking children in 2014, 40 of whom were under 5 years old?

All of this horrifies me, but doesn’t surprise me, given that I engage more or less daily with asylum seekers, and am supporting some through the lengthy Home Office process of claims, appeals and appeals against appeal decisions.

But it was number 7 on the list that really caught my eye:

“The backlog in cases waiting a decision rose to 34% to 22,974.  According to the Home Office, this was due to a lack of staff.”

That certainly doesn’t surprise me.  According to my diary, I was to spend yesterday morning at an asylum appeal tribunal with a teenage member of one of the parishes where I minister.  Late afternoon the day before, the session was cancelled, due to lack of staff.  The hearing has been rescheduled for mid-April.  Meanwhile a vulnerable young woman will spend another six weeks in Home Office accommodation far from anyone she knows in the UK and in a state of constant anxiety and fear, not to mention extreme poverty and hardship.

Her £5 a day living allowance is piled onto a card each Monday, just enough for the next 7 days, and only usable in certain shops.  It is a ridiculously small amount of money in a country where the Living Wage for her part of the country is currently £7.85 an hour. Even the minimum wage there amounts to £6.50 an hour at the moment. And yet that £5 a day for each government-supported asylum seeker, banned from seeking work, soon adds up with almost 30,000 people being supported at the end of 2014.  Yet they wait months or, more typically, years, while decisions are being made – very slowly, by an understaffed department, who are getting a worryingly large proportion of these initial life/death decisions wrong.

The cost of support comes to around £150,000 a day or some £54 million a year and it is these figures that land us back in the midst of the anti-immigration rhetoric.  Yet the asylum seekers I know would love to find work, any honest work, simply to have more meaningful lives and make a positive contribution to society while their applications are being considered.  They are not scroungers.  In my experience, they are desperately vulnerable people being treated abysmally by a system that is not fit for purpose.

Generosity begets generosity

The Lent 40 acts challenges to ‘Do Lent Generously’ are going well so far.  I loved the video connected with today’s challenge to ‘Devise a surprise’, so thought I’d share it for those who aren’t following 40 acts.

I can’t possibly come up with such a generous surprise for anyone myself at the moment, but it’s still fun trying to think up a few surprises I can spring on some of the people around me.

So far, 40 acts has challenged participants to put together a list of people to bless during Lent, to get to know the neighbours better, to pick up litter and/or recycle to help improve the local environment and then to devise some big or small surprises for other people.

imageWe’ve still barely started with the 40 days of Lent this year, so head over to 40acts.org.uk and sign up and join in.  You’ll also find lots of inspiration over on Twitter.  Just use #40acts.

Together, we can all do our bit to make the world a better place between now and Easter.