A chance meeting with a lady from the URC Church in Darwen led me to invite her husband to write for Rapport. John East is Asylum Seeker Coordinator for the ‘Blackburn with Darwen’ area. He generously invited four asylum seeker families on four days to their house between 18th and 25th December for Christmas dinner. What a blessing that Margaret is a good cook who rarely panics!
Asylum and refugee issues bring emotive thoughts and feelings to the minds of most people. Media coverage, especially by some national tabloids, fans the flames of fear and ignorance, and some of middle England’s Christians may never have met or experienced the richness of working with asylum seekers and refugees ― victims of world injustices and witnesses of the terror of volatile governments.
As a ministerial team member of Darwen Churches Partnership, a regular, full member of the URC church in Darwen and coordinator for Blackburn Diocese and Churches together in Darwen, I meet and work with some of the 4,000 asylum seekers dispersed to the North West, awaiting a result of an asylum appeal.
In fact, over 350 asylum seekers live in Blackburn with Darwen: people from Iran, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea; from both Christian and Islamic backgrounds. Our visitors are made to feel welcome and safe within our community.
Some are successful and gain the status to remain; others wait for the court’s decision and are in limbo with their lives on hold. Up to 20 are made destitute and add to an already unacceptable level of poverty and deprivation in the North West.
Over the last 3 years, the churches have responded with emergency food parcels, furniture, friendship and love ― a visible demonstration of God’s love and care for the needy, who are often isolated, traumatised and marginalised.
Many of the churches, and especially the Darwen Churches Partnership, have met the challenge ‘head on’ with support to change the way these very lonely and vulnerable people living within our community are treated.
Clearly, ‘asylum’ and ‘refugee’ status needs to be unpicked. Asylum seekers are those seeking permission to remain claiming a violation of human rights, by physical, political or religious persecution. Those granted refugee status can now stay for up to five years in relative safety in the UK, or, in our case, in the Blackburn with Darwen area.
At Central URC church in Darwen, where my wife, my family and I worship, 20 asylum seeker and refugee individuals and families have been welcomed; they regularly worship with us. During the past three years, six have been accepted into church membership, six have been baptised and one couple have renewed their marriage vows.
A whole variety of church members from the DCP have caught this vision, supported by their congregations. The asylum and refugee community is mission on our doorstep. Accepted by most, there is a sharing of traditions and cultures enhancing our worship and church life. We find ourselves at the ‘cutting edge’ of cultural diversity, social justice, integration and cohesion. A refugee from Zimbabwe said, “Once I just existed, but now through my new life and friends in Darwen, I can live my life to the full with God’s help and guidance.
It is a joy to know and serve alongside John and Margaret and many others involved in this work. In the DCP we thank God for their openness to welcome, their example in serving and their generous kindness to the stranger in our midst. Please remember them, all asylum seekers, refugees and those who work with them in your prayers.