Canon Steve Coneys from Seasalter Christian Centre has, along with members of his congregation, been volunteering in the temporary child assessment centre in Whitstable which is currently home to some of the male unaccompanied asylum seeking children who are in Kent. #adventjustice
He reflects on the experience so far:
What happens if you actually believe that Jesus meant what he said in Matthew 25: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…I was a stranger and you invited me in’? What happens if you take this literally and start doing it?
Presumably the kinds of things which happened then – some people will get upset. But others will ‘get it’ and want to join in. And we might find that Jesus is present where we never expected him.
So when the news about the Whitstable Reception Centre for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers leaked out in late July, we moved quickly to signal our support and friendship for the 16 and 17 year old boys who would be coming to our town. We had the support of all the churches in the town, and developed a plan, with KCC approval, to engage with the Centre.
Since then we’ve learnt most from the contrasts we have found. Angry faces, harsh words and unwillingness to listen from a small but vocal minority in our town. Walking around the Calais Camp talking to Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghanis, Ethiopians and Iraqis: open faces, gentle speech, the desire to make contact and talk. It was surprising to feel completely unintimidated – even welcome – while walking in pairs around this infamous Camp.
Then the welcome surprise of a rising tide of support and offers of help in our town, so that we are simply having to say ‘thank you’, and turn people away because we are overwhelmed with offers of help from ordinary people, community groups and those with experience and skills. It’s true: more people get it and want to show compassion and join in.
From now on this year the camp will be a muddy quagmire where simply keeping warm and dry is an impossibly wearing task. The young people in the Whitstable Reception Centre simply say that for now they feel safe. They seem gentle and thoughtful – the kind of young people you want to be around.
In all of this I keep getting reminders that Jesus meant what he said about being present in the poor. Meeting the inspirational Ethiopian pastor who has decided to stay put in his tent church in the Camp; a young looking Eritrean boy at Whitstable pulling his cross over his jumper so I’d know he is a brother in Christ; a 90-year old widow piling tins of cake and fresh fruit into my arms because, she said, apart from praying it was all she could do.
In Calais, one of us was given water by a Sudanese man because we looked as if we needed it. Who was being Christ to whom in that encounter?
I’m starting to get it, too.