Our church’s work with refugees and asylum seekers
Olton Baptist Church in Solihull, has been intentionally helping asylum seekers and refugees (AS&Rs) for six years. Much of what it offers is quite simple, which leads it to believe that it may be replicable in other Baptist churches. Minister Tim Fergusson shares the story
How it began - the allotment project
Our intentional support of AS&Rs began with two church members who had a passion for welcoming the stranger. They took on a double plot with a small shed at the local allotments and invited a few AS&Rs to join them – to work the ground, grow some veg and enjoy a place of safety and friendship. Some came to drink tea and chat, others came to dig because it reminded them of working their own land. The shared activity also allowed those who had suffered trauma to enjoy company without having to talk in any depth.
As the allotment project continued, other church members started to be involved in AS&R related groups. A few began to help at a Solihull Churches Together drop-in for asylum seekers obliged to report at the UK Border Agency’s Midlands centre. Another church member landed a job at nearby AS&R support organisation. A handful of church members were trained as befrienders by Restore, the Birmingham Churches Together AS&R support charity. This last connection has been especially important as we have sought advice from Restore on numerous occasions.
Growing, low level support
Gradually, we encountered an increasing number of AS&Rs. Some we knew for a brief season, while others developed strong friendships with people in the church.
Apart from providing the bus fare to get to the allotment project, we have never guaranteed any form of financial or practical support. Instead, a number of people in the church give low-level support to those they have built a relationship with, such as the provision of a bus pass or a phone top-up (without the ability to be in contact or to travel, relationship-building is extremely hard), or giving lifts, or helping with access to local services, or helping fill in forms. On a couple of occasions, we have written to local MPs to ask for their assistance in progressing a claim or in challenging government processes.
Many AS&Rs have contact with us only through the allotment project. But some have asked to attend church, and a sizeable handful has become part of our worshipping congregation. Two have been baptised, three are now church members. They have variously joined our worship band and our children’s team and our outreach to a residential home. Six came along to our church weekend away – perhaps the first holiday they have had in years. You can read what this has meant to one asylum seeker below.
Alongside this natural development, the church’s teaching has frequently focussed on the theme of welcoming the stranger. We eventually signed up at a church meeting to a charter of support for AS&Rs, formally placing welcome of the stranger on the church’s list of priorities.
In one case only so far, an asylum seeker has been accommodated by a couple in the church. The asylum seeker already had a strong friendship with the couple involved and expectations were openly discussed before this began. It proved both costly and enriching to the couple who acted as hosts for six months.
Behind this story lie many setbacks and mistakes.
We have sometimes been taken for granted or not told the truth.
We have realised that some church volunteers are vulnerable themselves and need guarding.
We have felt powerless in the face of mental health difficulties.
We have had to deal with anger within ourselves at the injustice of what we have seen and heard.
We have found ourselves drawn in alarmingly to the needs of others as it becomes apparent we are the only ones offering support.
We have been guilty of leaving the integration of AS&Rs to a few overburdened volunteers.
We have had to deal with suspicion and conflict among the different ethnic groups we are reaching.
And of course, we have had to challenge our own prejudices, assumptions and sense of entitlement.
The vowels of grace
Finally, there is a phrase, the ‘vowels of grace’, that has become useful to us. Welcoming the stranger, integrating those of other cultures, and supporting the marginalised can often be hard work.
We have learnt to embrace the reality that ‘grace’ is spelt not only with an A and an E, but also an I, O and a U. Those who exhibit grace become familiar with Awkwardness, Embarrassment, Inconvenience, Offence and Uncertainty.
When we are tempted to complain or walk away, reminding each other of this group of words has helped us to count the cost but still persevere. It is worth it, for when all is said and done, we have discovered that we have been enriched as we have demonstrated grace.
As the marginalised among us, the AS&Rs have caused us to sharpen our faith, learn generosity and develop an openness of spirit. Our otherwise homogeneous middle class church culture needs their participation as much as they need our welcome.
A story from an African asylum seeker:
What I have found helpful about Olton Baptist Church is the way people treated me like a human being, contrary to what I experienced in all the three detention centres
“Since being befriended, my life has completely changed. I have become a part of Olton Baptist church and found a new family – people that love me and trust me. In my personal opinion, I believe that churches have to stand together and speak into politics just to make sure people are treated fairly. What I have found helpful about OBC is the way people treated me like a human being, contrary to what I experienced in all the three detention centres I have been through since claiming asylum.
I now feel confident because I have a new family who believe in me and are all helping me integrate into church life. I am saying this because many people will not realise how important little things they do can be – like saying hello, or just talking to you and treating you as a person. I would like the church to see how powerful their ministry of welcome is to those who have known only hostility since they arrived in Britain.”
Picture: Tim Fergusson (yellow bucket) helps to baptise an asylum seeker at Olton Baptist Church. The candidate wanted to be baptised outside