This summer marks the first anniversary of the community sponsorship scheme in the UK, a programme which allows communities to take responsibility for resettling refugees. Major Nick Coke of the Salvation Army shares how sponsoring a Syrian family has given new purpose to his worshipping community.
On 2 September 2015, the tragic image of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, found its way into newspapers and social media feeds across the world. In a moment it transformed the public narrative on refugees. Four days later, my wife (Kerry) and I were installed as the new leaders of Raynes Park Corps in West London.
When the opportunity came for us to share our first public words we felt compelled to remove the focus from our comfortable surroundings and bring our new congregation together in prayer for those fleeing war and conflict. We reminded ourselves that the Bible is brimming over with the stories of refugees, from Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel and many more all the way to Mary, Joseph, members of the Early Church and, of course, Jesus Christ himself. In that moment the corps began the journey to live up to Salvation Army Founder William Booth’s famous challenge to ‘do something.’
We began with a practical response. We raised money, collected clothes and food and sent them off to where they could be used. Mya, an eight-year-old girl in our congregation, challenged us one Sunday morning to help her make up backpacks for child refugees who arrived off the boats with nothing. She rallied us and, within a couple of months, 30 backpacks, stuffed with toys, basic clothes and a few toiletries arrived in Athens to be handed out to children by Salvation Army volunteers.
This was a start, but we felt there was something more costly expected of us. We read reports of the tremendous work that our Salvation Army brothers and sisters were involved with in Greece, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and other European nations and felt ashamed that our country appeared to be doing so little. Being an island, Britain was insulated from the million refugees who made their way across the Mediterranean and into mainland Europe during 2015. As we reflected further we realised that this was as much about justice as it was about mercy.
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