During my final summer at theological college in 2012 I had a module which consisted of visiting various projects and institutions that served specific needs or people groups over a two week period, followed by a two week full-time contextual placement. We began by spending a day in Nottingham with just £2 each for food to get an idea of what it was like to be homeless! We were sent out with questionnaires to talk to people doing their shopping asking questions about faith, what they thought about the church, etc.; we visited a mosque to learn a little about Islam and visited a project that cared for prostitutes working in Nottingham. Each of these experiences offered me things to learn, not only about other people, but also about myself and my reactions to people from different faiths, situations and cultures.
I would like to think and hope that I’m ‘cool’ about most things and at one level I am but my experiences told me something different. It is very easy to be dismissive, off-hand or judgemental about certain people groups. Homeless people at that time were largely invisible to most of us; it was only when entering into that world – albeit for a very short time – that I became properly aware of them. I realised that generally, I tune out the things I don’t want to deal with, think have nothing to do with me or believe that someone else is dealing with. Prostitution is also largely invisible these days – much of it is no longer seen on the streets and therefore it is easy to ignore, or simply not comprehend its extent in modern society.
When I undertook my two week placement I chose to go to the Nottingham Refugee Forum and there met people from many different countries, cultures and traditions. It was a truly humbling experience. These people were mostly looking for a safe place where they could live, work and bring up their families, or find a new family, a new place to belong. Many had no money and depended on their legal status most were unable to work. They survived on hand-outs – a shocking £10 per month in cash for an individual and food distribution from the centre on Saturdays of basic food items, some fresh fruits, vegetables and toiletries. (Of course, this may well have changed radically since 2012 but this was what it was like at that time).
My enduring memory is the sense of community I found there. All these different people came together to form some sort of community out of their commonality – those things that they shared rather than focussing on their differences. It was wonderful and sobering at the same time – Christian communities are based on this model of inclusivity, sharing and caring for one another, yet so often we focus on our differences rather than those things we have in common.
Maybe it is desperate need that we have no control over that drives people together… for refugees and asylum seekers their lot is one of being in a state of transition – from their old life to a new, hoped for, life; a transition that seems to have no known end, only hope.
The Old Testament prophets are filled with warnings against exploiting the poor, neglecting those who are marginalised and helpless. In the book of Micah (Ch 6.6-8) the people are reminded of what God requires of us – not sacrifices and offerings so much as to seek justice, to love kindness and to live life with humility before God. We may not know any asylum seekers or refugees but there are always those around us who we perhaps ‘tune out’ who need to obtain justice and to be shown kindness from people who walk humbly with God and maybe, maybe then, they will find hope.
Revd Gerri Tetzlaff