I was invited to deliver a seminar at the annual Christians Aware Conference 2024 which took place at Hinsley Hall,(the Leed’s Diocesan Pastoral Conference and Retreat Centre) on 26th-28th January 2024. The conference was entitled Strangers and Pilgrims: People, Displacement and Migration in God’s World. Christians Aware is an international and inter-denominational organisation, working to develop multicultural understanding and friendship locally, nationally and internationally. These are some of my highlights of the weekend.
The conference was opened by Torsten Moritz (Executive Secretary of the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe) who gave us an overview of global migration trends. In the face of increasing global hostility towards migrants, Torsten reminded the attendees that being a migrant was our Christian vocation which urges us to create a world in which we become human together. Inderjit Bhogal (from Cities of Sanctuary and Churches of Sanctuary) offered a biblical reflection about the experience of being a migrant and explained how his migrant journey has taken him from being a stranger to becoming the host and eventually, a guest. He emphasized that Christians believe in a migrant God who journeys with God’s people.
On Saturday Bethan Lant (from Praxis and Chair of the London Churches Refugee Network) offered an insightful overview of the main aspects of Migration and Asylum in the UK, highlighting the many failings of the UK’s asylum system and the systematic lack of compassion it generates. Regarding the churches’ response to the suffering inflicted on those who seek sanctuary in the UK, Bethan urged Christian communities to continue to offer what has become a vital practical support to refugees but insisted that these good deeds must be accompanied by a strong advocacy work to challenges a failed asylum system.
With my colleague Catherine Bridgwood (former Columban Faith In Action Volunteer and Befriending Coordinator of Restore) we delivered a seminar entitled ‘Working towards a preferential option for the refugee’. The seminar explored how the refugee experience can enrich the Church and contribute to devising strategies of help and hope. It started with an interactive activity inviting participants to reflect on the ‘labels’ and words we commonly use to refer to people on the move and refugees. In light of that, participants reflected on the significance of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a key document offering clear definitions as well as an outline of the protection Refugees must be given. Resonating with Bethan Lant’s presentation, we noted a dangerous increasing reluctance of the UK government to meet its international legal obligations regarding asylum protection.
The seminar continued with an invitation to adopt and adapt the term ‘preferential option’ with regards to refugees and the refugee experience in both areas, theological thinking and praxis. We explored together the significance of the refugee experience as a locus for mission today, as well as a ‘source of salvation’ for Christians in the XXI century. We ended the session showcasing the work of Restore which has offered befriending services to asylum seekers for 25 years, and the work of Fatima House, which has offered a pathway out of destitution to women seeking protection in the city for the past 7 years.
The conference also offered very well-prepared and beautiful liturgies and prayers with inspiring music and other art expressions. The final blessings of the evening liturgy on Saturday express well the spirit of the weekend:
‘May God who calls us to love the stranger,
and Christ who was a refugee with nowhere to lay his head,
and the Spirit who breaks down barriers of language and culture,
Bless us now to recognise You in every human face.’