Over a period of just two years, St. Chad’s Sanctuary was visited nearly 19,000 times. (We count the numbers who have signed our visitors’ book!) Many are asylum seekers who have recently arrived from situations of great violence and persecution. We have welcomed over 100 nationalities. The majority are from Sudan, Iran and Eritrea and, more recently, from Syria. Some are still wearing the clothes they wore during their long and often dangerous journey to Britain. They really are the picture of misery, often made worse by our seasonal weather when they walk from the immigration hostel to the Sanctuary, sometimes carrying young children, a journey of 45 minutes – when they know the way!
They are the most heart-broken people I have ever met. Not only are they grieving for their families and homelands but they are totally bewildered in a country and a culture so different from their own. Not understanding what they are saying may seem an insurmountable obstacle but communicating with the heart is the same in every language. More than anything, they need to be met with compassion and with a deep respect for their dignity as human beings. They all need a warm welcome and then some suitable clothing. To date, we have given out nearly 3,000 bags of clothes and shoes and we have dressed many from the skin out. Unfortunately we often do not have garments to fit because most asylum seekers are very thin.
We continue to give priority to those who are destitute i.e. they are homeless and have no recourse to public funds. This results in their having no access to hostels for the homeless so that they become ‘sofa surfers’ among their friends or sleep on the street. They come to us from all over the Midlands often walking miles as bus tickets cost money!
The Latin for destitute translates as ‘abandoned’ and this is much closer to their reality. In fact, I believe that they are the most ignored and nameless people in our society. We continue to be amazed by their resilience in the face of so much hopelessness since they have very little hope of anything better anytime soon. Life and its opportunities are just passing them by. Yet, we are constantly humbled by their graciousness and their strong faith and trust in a loving God. ‘Inshallah’ is a word we have come to know very well at St. Chad’s Sanctuary.
Going back to their countries is not an option, both because they are in fear for their lives and often because it is not a practical possibility. We give them bags of dried and tinned food, which they can share with their friends; our statistics show that we gave out 2,782 bags up to the end of October. They also need items of male and female hygiene, which we supply regularly.
Destitute asylum seekers put me in mind of Someone who said: ‘Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). I remember feeling a shock when I read somewhere that Jesus was a homeless baby born to parents who were sleeping rough and that the family then had to flee for their lives before the murderous intent of Herod, to become refugees in Egypt. Indeed, if looking for the ‘Child of the Manger’, the best place to search is summed up in the following verse:
the hungry and hopeless, the broken in heart.
At home with the homeless, I dine with the outcast,
and if you receive me, then there I shall be.” (A.J. Lewis).
This is a far cry from the usual tinsel-strewn and fairytale images we have of the Infant Jesus. It is interesting how many of Jesus’ parables feature homeless people e.g. Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), some of those invited to the great banquet (Luke14:15-24) and indeed many of those described in the final judgement with whom he himself identified (Matt 25:31-46).
At the Sanctuary our ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) classes are full and we have a waiting list. We offer places mostly to those who cannot get into college; all the tutors are volunteers. It is wonderful to see the progress our students make and they are always a joy to teach. It can also be very challenging work because in the same group we may well have students who have never been to school and others who have university degrees and a lot of professional experience. They are always very kind and helpful towards one another and that makes our task much easier. These students usually make rapid progress and soon they are celebrating exam success. Earlier in the year we received a small grant to run a creative English course and later celebrated when several of our students had their poetry published.
We have much to celebrate at the Sanctuary. Every now and again, people receive the news that they have ‘leave to remain’ and this puts hope into every heart! We share in their excitement when they begin to set up their own homes, and indeed we are often able to help with ‘starter packs’ including curtains, bedclothes and kitchen essentials. And then there are the budding romances and on occasion we have helped dress the bride or groom! We are often among the first to see the newborn babies and indeed now have so many ‘god’ children that we could put Mother Hubbard to shame!
I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the many supporters of the Sanctuary. First of all, to an amazing team who work so hard and so generously to provide the many services we offer and who keep the place so clean, warm and welcoming! And we couldn’t do any of this but for the generosity of individuals, parishes, schools and other groups throughout the West Midlands and some further afield. Thanks to you, we always have something to offer those who come for help, and money in the bank! But for the generosity of the Salvation Army who have provided the building and the great support of St. Chad’s cathedral we would not exist. I just wish you all could experience the gratitude of our visitors; be assured that you are in their prayers and always in ours.
Sr Margaret Walsh IJS , Manager