The current rhetoric around immigration, asylum and 'foreigners' is not one might call constructive. Statistics are bandied around, particularly by politicians determined to cut numbers. However, behind the numbers are people.
Last week I visited PAFRAS, a centre dedicated to care for and serve asylum-seekers and refugees, based in a church hall in Leeds. PAFRAS stands for 'Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers'. It is a charity, runs mainly on volunteers, and is interested purely in the human faces behind the bald statistics. They feed them, offer community and human society, screen them for medical needs and offer advice in a range of matters. They also run classes for teaching English. Food is also provided and served by a group of young Muslim men who asked to be involved.
What is remarkable is how all this goes on without remark. It isn't done for kudos or gain, but in order to help some very vulnerable people. Yet, what you notice in visiting and speaking with people there is that behind the factual vulnerability of their circumstances, there are some very impressive people who have the determination to withstand poverty in order to make a better life. Many are here because they would have had (literally) no life in their country of origin.
People who bandy statistics should be compelled to visit such places, meet such people, listen to their stories, look them in the eyes, then return to the narrative lent credence by the use of statistics.
Interestingly, this visit followed a visit earlier in the week to the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Apart from finding myself in a deep pit – OK, only 140 metres down – I had to think through the way in which (in some cases) centuries of mining had shaped the sociopsychology of whole communities … and how the abrupt ending (for economic reasons) of this industry deeply scarred these communities, probably for decades to come.
Again, behind the headlines and the economic/political debates there are people with faces and histories – relationships forged and torn apart by the strikes of the 1980s. Yet, while some have engaged in forgiveness and reconciliation, others remain isolated by their former allegiances.
It is not for me to cast judgement on this. But, as with the asylum-seekers and refugees at PAFRAS, human beings bring stories and memories, cultures and relationships, commitments and costs. Sometimes it is important to step back from rhetoric and judgement, and to look and listen – and to see the complicating human person behind it all.
This evening I am going out to the Saturday Gathering, a young church community in Halifax where all-comers – including some of the most vulnerable people in the town – have found love, grace, unreserved care and genuine fellowship. I will be baptising a family of four. Tomorrow I will be at Wakefield Cathedral to preach at two 'hospice' services in the afternoon for people who have been bereaved – we expect around 1,100 people to take part. Behind all these encounters echoes the haunting melody of the Gospel reading read always at Christmas: John 1:1-14. “The Word (the logos, the idea) took flesh and lived among us”… the 'incarnation' changes everything. God comes to us – not vice versa – and we find that we have already been found by him.
That is what underlies the commitment of many who give themselves through the church to the most vulnerable people in our society: love has to take flesh, and the most surprising people can open their eyes and know that they matter.
(And when I go to the meeting of the House of Bishops in London on Monday, these are the people and places that shape the lens through which we do the business.)