Sophia Chee Tzu Ting is a new Columban lay missionary commencing her first term assignment in the region of Britain.

Together with my companion, Ling, we arrived here in Birmingham on the 4th September 2020. Straight away we entered into a 14 day quarantine in compliance with the country’s coronavirus pandemic safety measures.

From the moment I received my mission assignment in Sept 2019, I have unquestionably prepared myself to take up this assignment. I was excited about my first mission assignment. However, with the coronavirus pandemic getting in the way, I paused. People would ask me “Why bother going there when cases are so high?”, “What are you going to contribute over there?”, “Please, you don’t want to add to their problems already!”, “Can’t you request to be sent to another country that is safer?”. These were all valid questions, that I needed to ask myself but I absolutely had no answers. But, by God’s grace, my will to move forward came to light through prayers of my family, friends, fellow Columbans and lay missionaries around the world.

Travelling from New Zealand to London was exceptionally smooth despite the hassle of having to wear a mask at all times, washing our hands constantly and of course observing social distancing measures. Nevertheless, our exhaustion vanished when we were met with the warmest welcome given by the Columbans here in Birmingham. Over the quarantine period, we kept in close contact with the lay missionaries and our daily needs were always met. I was able to rest and lived out the quarantine time in quietness and prayer. In a way, it became a silent retreat which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Now that I am in orientation I enjoy going out to the streets exploring and discovering the newness and the way of life of the locals. I find breathing fresh air, meeting people of different ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures fascinating. Despite the excitement, I am discovering, on the one hand, how vibrantly rich and diversified the city Birmingham is, but on the other hand I am hearing and seeing poverty. According to recent statistics, 1 in 119 people are without a home in Birmingham alone, an astonishing figure. The refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless and the destitute are also part of that reality. While in the Philippines I saw beggars, children and families living in the streets but I could never quite associate it with a western country such as this. That leads me to search for a meaningful purpose for coming to Britain.

During one of our immersion programmes with the Birmingham charity “Let’s feed Brum” last autumn; I had my very first encounter with the homeless, serving them breakfast one Tuesday morning. We served coffee, tea, porridge, snacks and fruits. Many came and would politely queue up for food. They would then find a place to quietly sit down and have their breakfast. It was like a social gathering for them, and for us too. It was a nice autumn day and I enjoyed serving and listening to them. In my mind I couldn’t help wondering what brought them to this situation. “One of them used to be a professor at the university”, explained one of the lay missionaries. “Something happened and he lost his job and became homeless overnight”.  This is just one tragic story out of so many.

“What is the meaning of Advent?” asked a Columban priest during one of our weekly meetings. “Forget about theology… Jesus is coming to be with us” he said. “And how do you want to feel supported?” was his next question. “You want someone to listen to you and be at your side” is exactly how I would feel being supported.

Behind the face of every homeless person has to be a traumatic life changing event. They have been through many sufferings in life and they are just people like us. As Jesus explains in Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Is this not what Jesus wants from us? That we support and be in solidarity with one another, especially with the poor, the vulnerable, the rejected, the abandoned, the unwanted…?