Jesus spoke about how when we ignore the hungry and the homeless and the dispossessed, we ignore him. His followers hadn’t cottoned on, and as so often, he ended up having to explain to them. In becoming man, he saved us, and we are all made new in him – and have a common bond. This was one of the most powerful things about early Christianity. At a time when everyone made distinctions – ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, ‘Roman’ or ‘Barbarian’, as well as the ones we’re still familiar with – rich and poor, insider and outsider – Christians were all brothers and sisters, and one of the things which impressed the Pagan society within which it was situated was the way in which it considered those who were of no account – widows and orphans – as mattering. They mattered because like the rest of us they are made in the image of Christ – and in helping them, we help Christ.
Over here, during the twentieth century, the State took on many of the philanthropic functions previously carried on by voluntary organisations, not least the churches. But over the past decade or more, as the over-reach of the State becomes apparent because of economic crises, the churches have sort of begun to insert themselves into some of the gaps. So, in terms of the refugee crisis which you may have heard of, with thousands on thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the crises which have engulfed their countries, our Government has tended to give some funding to the churches and to other groups and told us to get on with it.
That’s how I find myself helping a couple of nights a week, and one Saturday a month, at a help centre for refugees. We serve food, we help find accommodation and schooling, and we put them in touch with others who can provide professional help such as psychiatric care. Though we have some funding from the local authorities via the Government, much of what we spend comes from donations, and the generosity of people is humbling. So, too, are the stories we hear.
I’m in no position to take sides – except that of the people we are trying to help. When you hear what these people have been through, your heart breaks – and there but for the Grace of God we all go. Most of the people I meet were, until a few years back, middle-class professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, who suddenly found their lives destroyed by the civil war in Syria. If anyone had told them, five years ago, they’d be eking out an existence in a bedsit in a foreign country depending on handouts, they would not have believed you – but that is just where they are now. But, once they are in a stable place, they help us to help others coming after them.
It’s not always easy. Some of the men in particular clearly feel humiliated in having to take charity, and some of them don’t much like being helped by women. It would be easy to get irritated by that, but what’s the point? True charity is not setting conditions on what you do such as expecting those you help to be grateful in the way we would express gratitude. A female friend expressed some crossness that I was covering my hair when I go to help, but I know, from talking to many of the women, that they feel more comfortable when their men aren’t unsettled. Some will think this a form of appeasement of Muslims, but I left out one detail – most of those we are helping are Christian refugees. In their churches women and men sit on opposite sides of the aisle, and the women always cover their hair. In following their custom, we’re simply making them feel comfortable – it is an act of courtesy, acknowledging that even if they are homeless refugees totally dependant on our charity, they are men and women from a culture which we can show some respect to.
They say that you shouldn’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes, and having shared some time and space with these men, women and children, all I can say is that it isn’t hard to see them as brothers and sisters. What is heartening is to see how they respond, and how a comradeship grows between us. As one women with whom I prayed recently said to me: ‘You are good sister to me, and if needed, I would be to you, we are one in Jesus Christ.’ Yes, I thought, we are, and I believe you would be if the boot was on the other foot.