Flora Davis from Wakefield Baptist Church tells the story of work with asylum seekers in Wakefield.
Wakefield hosts the Home Office dispersal centre for the north-east of England. This means that there are always around 200 asylum seekers in the city, most of them newly arrived in the UK and all waiting to be moved on somewhere else. The average stay in Wakefield is 3-4 weeks. A few are housed here while they wait for their case to be considered, but most are dispersed across the region.
Like many cities we also have our share of destitute asylum seekers – those who have been refused asylum and have no recourse to public funds. They struggle along with a little bit of help and support from friends, churches, and Wakefield and District City of Sanctuary (WDCS).
We have a number of asylum seekers and refugees resident in Wakefield and worshipping regularly at Wakefield Baptist Church. These are of different nationalities, but mostly Iranian. On top of this we often see 15-25 new arrivals (from the dispersal centre) attend both our Friday evening Farsi meeting and Sunday morning English worship. Many of them have left Iran because they converted to Christianity and are experiencing persecution. Sometimes these young believers bring others along to church on a Sunday – Afghan, Nepali, Tibetan, Costa Rican, African… Through 2016, as a church we have also been supporting two Christian families who fled Pakistan because of religious persecution – for different reasons the Home Office refused to support them and so they were made homeless.
As well as finding a welcome at Friday and/or Sunday meetings, there are free English classes available at the church on Wednesday and Friday mornings. Throughout the week several church members are engaged with WDCS initiatives – running a children’s play session at the dispersal centre; befriending asylum seekers and refugees; helping them with paperwork or to find housing (once they have permission to stay). Some members have also opened up their homes to those who are destitute and have nowhere to stay.
In 2016 we baptised 12 new believers, all converts from Islam and in regular attendance at Wakefield Baptist Church. The church has recently appointed a part-time worker to head up the work with Iranians and others who come asking about Christianity – helping them to fit in to church life, organising Bible Study, dealing with pastoral issues and supporting them in their asylum cases.
For the church as a whole, the challenge is integration. On Sundays we are a very mixed group, and yet we are all one in Christ. How do we reflect this in our church service and in our relationships with one another? Singing in Farsi or having the scripture reading in another language goes only part way to expressing our unity in Christ. What about coffee times? Some of us find it hard to make conversation with people we don’t know and – then there is the language barrier! How do we work out our life together as a church community and remain welcoming to the constant turnover of new people? This is our ongoing challenge.
And yet – you know you must be getting some things right when a young man who is on his own here in the UK, comes up to you after the Sunday service and says, in broken English: “That was good today. I think this is now my family.”
Many thanks to Flora Davis from Wakefield Baptist Church for sharing this story. If you think you have a story about your church that could give guidance to others who are eager to help please share it with us: