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Sanctuary – Entertaining Angels Unawares

13/03/2017 10:02

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

The issue of immigration is deeply personal to me. When I moved to East London in 1975 my very first job involved teaching English as a Second Language to some of the East African Asian refugees heard recently settled in Newham. In a career of 40 years the concerns of refugees asylum seekers and migrants have never been far from my working life. In the 1980s and 1990s as a member and trustee of Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice, and as a church related community worker I became involved in numerous campaigns to support people who were facing difficulties in their immigration status or being threatened with deportation. In more recent times our family hosted in our home for nearly two years a mother and daughter who were seeking asylum and accompanied them successfully through the application procedures.

The organised sanctuary movement emerged in the 1980s in the churches of the USA in a context where people fleeing the war-torn countries of Central America were made less than welcome by the Reagan administration. The movement has continued over the decades offering support to large numbers of undocumented migrants and refugees. Many American cities have declared themselves cities of sanctuary and have refused to participate in the policing and enforcement of the American immigration system. Most recently they have come into confrontation with the new Trump administration, with its extreme hostility to migrants and minorities and its commitment to build physical and metaphorical walls to protect the southern border.

In the UK The City of Sanctuary movement began in Sheffield in September 2007, with the support of the City Council and over 70 local community organisations, Since then, the movement has supported the development of over 90 City of Sanctuary initiatives in towns and cities across UK and Ireland. City of Sanctuary is a movement committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.

In recent months I have been involved in developing the City of Sanctuary movement in Preston. Last month we launched with a public gathering of over 150 people in Preston Minster, followed by a week-long exhibition of the Escape to Safety installation which involves an audio guided tour of the experiences of several asylum seekers and their difficult journey to Britain.  One of the fascinating and encouraging things about Preston City of Sanctuary is  the wide diversity of people who have been brought together, with the backing of the city council and the local University. The movement emerged from the concerns of faith communities for the current refugee crisis in Europe. In 2015 groups of Christians Jews and Muslims co-ordinated by  Preston Faith forum organised together to deliver material aid to the Jungle camps of Calais and Dunkirk. At the same time Preston became a dispersal Centre for  over 150 asylum seekers who are offered basic accommodation in the city and a meagre allowance of £37 a week until their cases determined.

More recently still a small number of Syrian refugee families under the government resettlement program have come to live with us in Lancashire. Despite the hostile atmosphere stirred up by some sections of the media and the pro Brexit referendum vote, large numbers of volunteers from across the communities have worked together to offer support services English classes and social activities for the newcomers to our city. The differences between Christians, Muslims and Jews seem to matter little in our shared commitment to a common humanity and in our commitment to welcome the strangers who have now become neighbours and friends.

Inevitably, offering sanctuary is a deeply political act, signalling opposition to current government policy which strives to minimise and reduce immigration, and in their own words to produce a “hostile environment” for  those who are thought to be taking advantage of the prosperity and generosity of the United Kingdom. In many ways the government is deceiving itself if it thinks it can successfully limit the flow of people between countries in a still, if reluctantly, globalised world. In practice the Home Office’s immigration control system is broken; the immense caseload and the difficulties with international documentation (or the lack of it), means that decision-making is slow, labyrinthine and often evidently unjust. There are instances in asylum interviews with applicants basing their case on conversion to Christianity and fear of persecution in their home country, being asked religiously illiterate questions such as how many female Bishops are there in the Church of England.

Even when a negative decision is received, and a refused asylum seeker is made destitute by being refused access to any public funding, the Home Office can take several years turning this into into a repatriation. In the meantime the person concerned needs to rely for sustenance on friends and relatives or on charities. The Boaz Trust in Manchester has a long track record of supporting refused asylum seekers with accommodation in night shelters and spare rooms in family homes. Similar schemes are now being extended to other parts of the country including Lancashire. And yet there is no shortage of generous volunteers who are willing to make costly commitments in offering hospitality to people in extreme need. In doing so we find our lives enriched by the encounter with the “other”.

Radical hospitality is deeply embedded in the scriptures and traditions of Christianity and other faith traditions. The Exodus narrative speaks of an oppressed people who were rescued from slavery and established in a new country. There they were called to remember their origins and to welcome and deal justly with the foreigners in their midst. The story is recapitulated in Matthew’s account of the flight into Egypt of the infant Jesus and his family. The in-gathering of the gentiles in the early church establishes the universal welcome of the gospel, and the writer of Hebrews urges the early Christians to practice hospitality, “for in doing so you may entertain angels unawares.” A society and government which pretends to have respect for “our Christian heritage” yet shows an evident mean-spirited hostility to those who are fleeing war and persecution, plays the numbers game, and in refusing to open the door to unaccompanied children, is contradicting its own expressed values of tolerance, its tradition of support for human rights and is turning its face against God.

You can find out more about Greg’s work here.


More blog posts on religion and public life:

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