Two stories, remarkably and poignantly, came together last Sunday morning (6th Sept).
One was the story of little Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was found, washed up on a Turkish beach, his family having tried to make the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece, fleeing the violence, oppression and destruction within Syria, seeking some kind of greater safety and security in Europe. The image, published by most national newspapers, seems to have been something of a ‘turning point’ in British responses to the refugee crisis. Responding at least in part to the wave of shock felt by ordinary people across the UK, our Prime Minister seems to have changed his mind and heart, at least in part, about the number of Syrian refugees the UK is willing to take. Aylan’s story, then, has become one not just about Syrian people desperate for help, but about people with power whose instinctive ‘No’ (accompanied by dehumanising words about refugees – calling them, among other things, a ‘swarm’, suggesting they are of no more value than insects) is slowly turning into a ‘Yes’, however limited and cautious and qualified that ‘Yes’ might at present be.
The other story came in last Sunday’s gospel reading, set for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary, which would have been read that day in churches across the world, across denominations. It’s a story found in Mark’s gospel, chapter 7, verses 24-30: the story of an encounter in the land of Tyre (that is, Syria), between Jesus and a Syrophoenician (Syrian) woman, desperate for help for her daughter who is dying. And Jesus responds with a ‘No’, insisting that ‘the children’ (his own people, the Israelites) should be looked after first, calling the woman and her daughter (and other Syrians, by implication) ‘dogs’ – less than human. But the woman persists, insists, that ‘even the dogs under the table’ eat the crumbs that fall from it. And Jesus changes his mind, and heart, and tells her that, because of what she has said, her daughter has been healed. This is a real ‘turn-around’ for Jesus, and in case we don’t get that, he literally turns around, changes direction, heads back to Galilee, and seems to have had his horizons broadened, bringing healing and food to Gentiles (non-Jews) that before he has not paid attention to.
I think there is something amazing about this gospel story, just in and of itself. The Son of God, challenged and changed, taught even, by a Gentile woman?! But alongside Aylan’s story, it seems to speak directly to our situation here and now.
David Cameron’s first response to the shock-waves following the publication of Aylan’s picture was to tell us that he too ‘was deeply moved’. But he seemed to realise quite quickly that that in itself was far from an adequate response. People didn’t want to see emotion, they wanted to see action. And perhaps as significant in the UK government reaching a ‘tipping point’ was the response of ordinary people, which seemed to spread like wildfire, offering practical help in all kinds of ways.
This ‘refugee crisis’ is one of those huge, overwhelming situations that we have prayed about in church for weeks, if not months, having little sense of what we, here, could do. Some things do depend on governments. Much more simply needs governments to remove the obstacles in the way. And even more we can simply get on and do. So here is what we are able to do, right here in Hodge Hill:
1) Urgently – send supplies to the refugee camps in Calais. The camps are already holding thousands of people, in desperate circumstances and without even basic supplies. On 18th September, the Amirah Foundation in Aston is taking several lorry-loads of supplies, and stuff from Hodge Hill will be on those lorries. (A full list can be found in this magazine.) I’m sure there will be more trips after the 18th.
2) Longer-term – last year Hodge Hill Church established a link with BIRCH (Birmingham Community Hosting), who connect up local households with individual asylum-seekers and families seeking asylum. You can choose to host a young asylum-seeker for Sunday lunch every month, offering ongoing friendship and support. Or, if you have a spare bedroom, you can provide accommodation for someone, over a timescale that you feel comfortable with. BIRCH do very careful match-making, and ongoing support for hosts, and are also able to offer a financial contribution to cover food costs and the like. Our Old Rectory Community House has already started the process towards offering accommodation for at least one person, and I hope more of us will be able to follow, in one form or another.
3) Longer-term, starting now – we already have two established ‘Places of Welcome’, at the Old Rectory on a Monday afternoon, and at Open Door (at The Hub) on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. We also have the monthly Coffee Mornings at church, which already pretty much operate on ‘Place of Welcome’ principles. It will only take us small adjustments to make sure those ‘Places of Welcome’ are genuinely welcoming to refugees and asylum-seekers – places where those in such circumstances know they will get a warm welcome, a cuppa and a bite to eat, the beginning of friendships which will grow and develop, and opportunities to make their own contribution, with their gifts and skills, to the life of our community here in Hodge Hill.
So what can we do? Quite a lot, actually. And things that can make a real difference to people affected by this desperate crisis in our intimately-interconnected world. And when we are able to show governments what we can do, what we’re prepared to do, what comes naturally to us because of our faith and our faith-stories, then the world begins to change...