Seeing God in the stranger
By Phil Kerton
‘Why work for migrants and refugees,’ people ask me. I could cite the remarks of Pope Francis, centuries of Church teaching and the words of scripture. But these also justify involvement with many other concerns – for the environment, the relief of poverty, disengagement from the arms trade, and many others.
Why work and campaign for people demonised by the media? I ponder the correct response. Looking back, I realise that my concern is not just recent – not solely related to the dreadful situation recently seen, and which is building up again in 2017.
About 30 years ago, the late Bert White, prison chaplain at Rochester, discovered that it would house the first UK Immigration Detention Centre. The new regulations were unclear, particularly regarding chaplaincy services and visitors’ groups. While Fr Bert’s ministry extended to the detainees and we pressed the authorities to provide chaplaincies in future centres, an ecumenical group established a regime for visiting. I became a trustee and spoke on street corners in the city: not a comfortable experience.
As it happened, after a few years I could speak about my visit to Banja Luka in a delegation of solidarity organised by the European Justice and Peace Commissions. Banja Luka, the largest city in the Serb Republic within Bosnia Herzegovina, became its capital despite having previously had a minority Serb population. Moslems and Catholics fled the area and their homes were taken over by Serbs arriving from other regions. We saw clear evidence of the vicious and targeted destruction of mosques and churches. The Dayton Accord may have brought ‘peace’ but neither safety, space nor welcome for returning exiles. I could testify that they did not feel at all safe in returning to the aftermath of conflict that surrounded their family homes.
Later I worked for several years with the National Catholic Refugee Forum, travelling across England and Wales with the inspiring Louise Zanré, UK head of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
So I have a track record of concern. Yet, why did I consistently give up my time and become emotionally distressed by the tragic stories encountered? In part, each effort has resulted from putting faith into action and of my general policy of saying ‘yes’ to requests from bishops, unless finding a very good reason for refusing them. But there is more to it than that.
Family albums include photos of me as a toddler with my parents, plus a variety of young men, evidently visitors to our home. These were German prisoners of war, naval officers still confined for two years after D-Day, but allowed to visit willing households. My parents had responded to an appeal from the pulpit to welcome Catholic prisoners. Of course, I was too young to know this, but many became family friends and my later childhood was punctuated by the despatch of food parcels to Germany to supplement their meagre rations and by the arrival of thank you letters. One, I remember, described how a jar of coffee had shattered in transit, but delicious drinks had been made by boiling up the coffee-saturated cardboard.
We visited some of them later in Germany, and their children came to us to improve their English. Keen on reading true and fictional wartime adventure stories and comic strips, I was puzzled to meet ordinary people, sharing our hopes and concerns.
This lesson from my early years has stayed with me, and surely I can thank my parents for bringing me face-to-face with ‘the others’ – human beings, made in God’s image.
Phil Kerton is the former NJPN Chair and now co-director of Seeking Sanctuary – www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com
Picture: The Azaz refugee camp is pictured near the Bab Al-Salama border crossing between Turkey and Syria in Azaz, Syria, in this 2nd April 2013 file picture. (Thomas Rassloff DPA/PA Images).