Monday, 26 December 2016

This is Joy

In the midst 
Of a world of darkness
Where the news carries anger and pain
This is joy:
The fragile song
Of a spirit that dares to dance
A sliver of silver in a stricken world
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As the earth reaches to heaven.

In the midst 
Of a world of fear
Where the news carries division and hurt
This is joy:
The fragile life
Of a spirit that dares to come
A sliver of silver in a darkening sky
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As heaven touches the earth.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 16 December 2016

A house of Hope

Perhaps I should leave the dust to settle on this week for a little longer before I write this post, and I am sure there will be further reflection to follow, but after one of the stranger weeks in my life it feels important to write something here... to write something entirely in my own words.

For context, (in case those reading this don't know what I am talking about), the week in a nutshell is that having bought a house to house destitute asylum seekers we, together with the charity we are working with Hope Projects, took the story to the media. We thought the local paper might be interested. In reality, the story went viral and has been published and shared by a wide variety of media outlets (with varying degrees of accurate representation.)

Maybe the story has been told quite enough: but the difference here is that I can explain myself how I want to and tell the story in my own words. No-one is asking me questions which elicit particular answers which may or may not contain the essence of what I want to say; no-one gets to cut which bits they think are newsworthy; and no-one gets to just make stuff up.

For probably 18 months or more, we have been reflecting on and working towards the idea of buying a house to house destitute asylum seekers. This was no "random" act but the fruit of a life of prayer over the last few years which made it seem possible.

The issues around destitution in the asylum system are of course highly complex, but it remains a scandal to me that in the 21st century in one of the richest countries on earth, those who come here seeking safety and freedom find themselves abandoned with nothing. As stewards of our wealth, we decided we could make a difference, undoubtedly to those who live in the property, but also more widely in terms of the message of welcome we are sending and where we are choosing to stand.

We are very excited that, after all the prayer and reflection, after the house hunting and organising, the project is finally coming to fruition and some of the most vulnerable people in Birmingham will be moving in to the house. We are very pleased that they will be safe and warm while they work with Hope to potentially find a way back into a system that has thus far failed them.

I'll be honest, I was, initially, somewhat ambivalent about going to the media with the story. We know of many, many other people who are doing things which are just as good and better to help this and other vulnerable groups. We know people who, in whatever way, are quietly getting on with doing what they can to make the world a better place. We didn't want to stand up and shout look at us, aren't we great. I think our friends know that. I hope some of those who have read the story do too.

If we agreed to talk to the media it was because we recognised that this could be a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on a hidden issue: destitute asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds, they don't, to all intents and purposes, officially even exist. It was a chance to raise awareness of Hope Projects, who struggle on a shoestring budget to provide a lifeline: practically, emotionally, legally to those on the very margins of our society. It was a chance to remind ourselves and others, that, in the midst of the complexity and enormity of these issues we do not have to remain paralysed but can, each in our own small way, do something. It was a chance to communicate an alternative, positive message around the issue of asylum, one of hope and trust and welcome: one which needs to be heard.

And I have no regrets. (well, maybe a few minor ones about mistakes along the way...) I am very grateful for (most of) the coverage we have received and the opportunity to share some of what inspired us to take this step. Even those news outlets who have chosen to invent both the facts and the quotes in their articles have still, generally, presented the story in a positive way, and given the general attitudes to those seeking asylum from certain sections of the press, that feels like no bad thing. I have been completely overwhelmed and deeply humbled by the response to the story, and by the affirmation we have encountered.

But I would be wrong not to admit that we have also experienced comments which have been very hurtful and have had a taste of what it feels like to be misrepresented. At times it has been extremely stressful. At times this week I have felt emotionally drained and physically exhausted. There have been tears.

It has been only a week. It has, perhaps, been valuable in giving me the tiniest of tastes of what it must feel like to be constantly the subject of misrepresentation and hatred. It has also, though, given me an insight into how valuable the positive messages of support are, I have been upheld by the support and love of both friends and strangers and for this I am very grateful. It has served as a reminder that, while it may not feel like much, our simple messages of welcome to those on the margins undoubtedly make a real difference.

If the last week has achieved anything at all, I hope it has been to inspire others to be part of that alternative discourse, the one that say "you are welcome." I hope that we have played our small part in helping that whispered message of hope, acceptance and love, to be ever so slightly louder. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

On Our Doorstep

As you probably know, we live in a church in city centre Birmingham. It is, in many ways, a strange place to live: our nearest neighbours are mostly not other homes, but shops and offices. Those who sleep nearby are usually transient: the luckier ones, in local hotels; the unluckier, in local doorways.

Sadly, we have become accustomed, though I hope not hardened, to the reality of seeing homeless people on the streets of the city centre, and often, quite literally, on our doorstep. Even in the three and a half years we have been here, we don’t need statistical evidence to tell us that homelessness in our city has increased: we have seen it happening before our very eyes.

One evening, a few weeks ago, when we were returning late in the evening from I don’t remember where, we came to the front door of the church to find a homeless man curled up in a sleeping bag on the porch.

I would be the first to admit that the homeless community, if such a disparate group can be described as such, is not one with which I have found it easy to engage. I am not proud of the fact that often, I ‘walk by on the other side’ but I can’t deny the reality. There are good reasons: I am busily engaged with other things which are equally valid and valuable ministries; and less good ones: mostly tied up, almost certainly in fear and prejudice, but couched more comfortably in the language of complex challenges which are beyond my capacities.

But this particular encounter has stayed with me. It struck me because of the exchange of words, and in particular because of his opening words to us as we approached: “I’m sorry”

It struck me because it drew attention to our creation of and participation in the kind of world in which a man forced to sleep on a church door step feels he needs to apologise to the one going in to sleep in a warm bed inside. Those words stopped me in my tracks and made me deeply, deeply sad for our society.

He explained he had chosen the spot because our CCTV made him feel safer. He had recently returned to Birmingham, was not familiar with the communities here that might offer a degree of comfort and safety to many of those who are outside our church. He offered to move away. 

I did not invite him in: maybe I should have, but maybe not. At least I was able to assure him he was welcome to sleep on our porch. I was able to say that it should be me that was apologising, for a society and situation in which he had no choice but to sleep outside. I was able to offer a cup of hot coffee and to hear something of his story, albeit for only a few minutes. I imagine it is a story which is both unique and also exactly the same as the many others who spend their nights in our city centre’s doorways.

He told us he had a housing appointment the following morning. I haven’t seen him since. I hope his story, at least, has a happy ending. There are many which don’t. Only last week the local news told us of a homeless man discovered dead on the street. He was in his thirties. The same age, more or less, as me.

When we moved here, one of the roles the church asked of us was to listen to the voices of the city. The homeless who congregate around our building are, perhaps more than any other, one of the groups whose voice we should be straining to hear. I have not found it easy.

Though he will never know it, I am grateful for one tiny opportunity to hear something of one of those voices.