Reaching out to refugees and asylum seekers in Teesside
Welcoming the stranger has taken on a fresh and urgent meaning for Stockton Baptist Tabernacle. In a little over a year, members of the Teesside church have responded to the needs of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from 34 different nations.
With more than 100 baptisms it has seen many come to a meaningful relationship with Christ, and as its ministry grows the church is increasingly connecting with others who are working with refugees and asylum seekers
Beginnings and developments
The developments began in 2014 when Stockton began seeing lots of asylum seekers on its Alpha Course. “Part of the attraction to Alpha was the meal and welcome they received,” says church secretary Peter Chapman. “But the people running Alpha, as they got to know their guests better, were becoming overwhelmed by the major issues the asylum seekers and refugees were facing.”
The church wondered if, and how, it could meet some of these needs. Two other churches in the town – Portrack Baptist Church and the Parish church were already involved in ministry to asylum seekers and provided excellent advice and guidance. After much research and prayerful consideration, it set up a weekly asylum drop-in in November 2014 - a place that above all offers welcome. “We didn’t intend to offer a service, we began by simply offering friendship, food and drink,” explains Peter. “There was no defined objective other than friendship.”
There is table tennis, pool, clothes people can buy very cheaply, alongside coffee, tea and food. (Those who are destitute can also pick up food parcels there). In order to encourage more women – many come from a culture where men and women don’t mix – it offers quieter things for them and their children, such as crafts. Two members began offering English language classes and we now have a variety of weekly classes catering for about 80 people at different stages of learning. Part of the friendship has been helping with issues that arise in people’s asylum claims, talking about costs, driving to solicitors or to hearings, which could be in Tyneside, or further afield in Liverpool or London. A couple of members have a role in the technical side of someone’s asylum case.
Throughout 2015 interest in the drop-in, the general friendship and assistance offered, and the Christian faith underpinning it all, snowballed: in the last 15 months the church has baptised around 100 people.
“The nature and character of our church is changing,” Peter says. “On any Sunday there are between 50-70 from an international background. Part of the service is translated into Farsi. “It has been extraordinary”.
Why so many have sought baptism
In terms of the baptisms it’s a story of people coming from an Islamic culture that does not generally welcome questions, Peter explains.
Iranians are the dominant group, making up about two-fifths of the asylum seekers in the town. Many arrive disillusioned with Islam and the vengeance they have experienced. They hear about a God who loves them; they discover at an Alpha Course they can discuss this openly, and the practical experiences of friendship they receive, are quite simply an expression to them of God’s love. It’s a contrast to their repressive experience of Islam.
“Many have come to a wonderful and genuine faith in Christ,” Peter says, and want that to be known in a public way, not least as a witness to their Islamic friends and family.
The response of members
Naturally there has been a corresponding impact on established members.
“One of the real joys when we said we wanted to offer friendship has been the response of the congregation,” Peter adds. “We have had 40/50 people, in their 60s and 70s, for whom this is the thing they have been waiting for.” Approximately 25 volunteer each week to staff the Drop-in activities and English classes, as well as the countless examples of both giving and receiving hospitality. It has been a great encouragement to hear what God has done in the lives of many of our friends.
A year on and new issues are beginning to emerge. Quite a number have been given refugee status. Many have come from a professional background, are used to a particular standard of living, but have fled from political or Christian persecution. They may have refugee status, but now have to adjust to different circumstances.
“The reality begins to dawn,” says Peter. “They realise they’re unlikely to reach the same levels in their career and standard of living. Contact with family will be difficult from now on. As they begin to face these new realities they can hit a period of depression.”
Many fall into the cracks of the system, where there is a delay between the granting of refugee status and being able to work.
A number of asylum seekers, having failed in their claim to asylum, may have grounds for submitting a Fresh Claim, having become Christians whilst being in the UK. This often results in a period when they have no accommodation or income and are destitute. We try to help in various ways.
The church is beginning to reach out to other groups who are working with asylum seekers, developing partnerships that complement each other's strengths and forming a more cohesive framework in which to work across the Tees Valley.
Some of their friends are attracted to London and other cities to look for work where they may have friends or families. However they often report that they don’t find the same welcome there, and can become disillusioned. It means Peter and the church are keen to make connections with other churches, especially in the big cities, and give thought to what a genuinely welcoming church is.
“We would love to have a list of churches that offer a proper welcome, so we can point the people who leave here to them.” Peter and a colleague are members of the Tees Valley Cities of Sanctuary Group. They are also exploring the feasibility of visiting other churches with an asylum team, to tell them about their journey and share learning experiences.
The reasons people leave their countries
“People have fled for a variety of reasons” says Peter, explaining that the Syrians are fleeing war; an Albanian woman fled from an abusive husband. Some Iranians have become Christians in their own country. Many Eritreans are delightful Christians who have suffered persecution. A Pakistani young man fled because he was persecuted for his faith. He came from a Christian family, he was badly beaten up at the Christian school his father ran.
“We don’t know the basis of why everybody has come” he continues. “We feel we need to slowly build friendships so they get to a place where they are able to tell us.
Advice for churches interested in helping refugees and asylum seekers
Peter offers the following points:
1 The first thing to do is find out information about asylum issues to discover the reality, and explode the myths. The perceptions of the general public are often inaccurate, and real contact with asylum seekers will begin to dispel this.
The 2nd thing is to find a way to simply offer to be friends with people. This is best if there is somewhere that asylum seekers can receive warmth and food - a safe and welcoming place where people can talk, and share their concerns and their stories, and just get to know each other. Even if there is a big language barrier, you can always ask a name. Don’t ask inquisitive questions until you have met them several times - and only in a way that you can offer help. Be sensitive to cultural differences, and particularly the way men should greet women.
3 If churches in the area already doing work with asylum seekers and refugees, make contact with them, and do things together. Combined Christian witness both to the asylum seekers and to the town is really effective.
4 Encourage the learning of English - find out where there are language courses and how to get registered etc. Learning English is empowering, and a crucial part of coping in a strange and new location and culture.
Anybody who would like to spend time at Stockton Baptist Tabernacle to see its ministry to refugees and asylum seekers at work is welcome to do so. They are invited to spend both a Sunday and Monday there, so they can be part of a service and the weekly drop-in. Let the church know you are coming by contacting the office (01642 602223)