Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 the Wesley Church Centre in Chester has opened its doors on Saturday afternoons offering a place of welcome to some of the many Ukrainian refugees, mainly women and children, hosted by families in the area through the government supported schemes. Two Ukrainian women already resident in the UK had worked in the longstanding café run by the church and were now able to offer support to the new arrivals with the many issues they faced. Church members have ensured it is a safe welcoming space for conversation and for children to play. As time has gone on the Ukrainians have responded by putting on events of their own to express appreciation to their hosts and the church and other volunteers. A need more recently recognised is that young Ukrainian children are in danger of losing any sense of their cultural identity so classes now take place alongside the café-style provision. The Cheshire West and Chester Council has also offered support and advice to those in need of refuge at this time.
The Chester City of Sanctuary group is supporting the Borough, the Cathedral, schools, churches and the theatre offering hospitality for all people. Some local schools are already identified as Schools of Sanctuary and the Borough and the Cathedral are submitting applications to be similarly accredited.
The Cathedral and more recently Wesley Methodist Church have used a study booklet “Hospitality and Sanctuary for All” (published by CTBI) written by Inderjit Bhogal the co-founder of the City of Sanctuary movement. In discussion another local refugee concern was raised.
Afghan refugees are currently housed at the Holiday Inn on a trading estate two miles outside the city, following their original hotel (in Luton) losing its contract, with only a week or two’s notice. The Borough together with the Home Office have a team supporting the 200 or so people involved, and there is vigilant security – the Knowsley anti-immigrant riots were not far away and there have been incidents elsewhere in Cheshire West. A family (some with seven or eight children) is given two rooms, with food bought in from a private company (no cooking was allowed in rooms, and the diet was initially inadequate. 86 children were found places in a primary school, with extra staff employed to meet the challenge, and a nearby private school has made its playing fields available. A sewing group was set up by a group under the auspices of Welcome Churches Network (much appreciated by the women), and the men are accessing college courses improving their English language skills. Contact with the local community has been limited (though would be welcomed), with cultural and class differences significant (the Ukrainians are mainly middle class). With the Islamic tradition of hospitality to strangers the small Chester mosque is welcoming but strongly Bangladeshi and some distance away. The current questioning of the government’s policy to house asylum seekers in hotels makes the future insecure.
The Labour-controlled Council is active in supporting what is an increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers in the area, and have for the first time appointed someone full-time to lead on this, a woman bringing wide experience and passion from similar roles elsewhere.
Our reading was Luke chapter 23, verses 1 to 25, the trial of Jesus before the Roman Governor, Pilate. He is depicted as reluctant to execute Jesus, in contrast to the Jewish religion leaders. Is that an attempt by the Gospel writers to “whitewash” the Imperial role, and put the blame wholly on the Jews? But the chief priests had heard Jesus’ claim that “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69), which they would clearly understand as a direct challenge to the power of Empires (the “beasts” of Daniel chapter 7). This Pilate had not heard (and probably would not have understood if he had)- and compare John 11:48, where the religious leaders see Jesus as a threat to Roman authority and their own.
Instead Pilate responds to the demands of the crowd to “crucify” Jesus. It is very doubtful whether this crowd at the trial is the same as those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem a few days earlier, as sermons often imply. The crowd at the “entry” were mainly rural visitors, who had witnessed the ministry of Jesus in Galilee (Matthew 21:11), whereas those at the trial were probably city people, perhaps an organised “rent-a-mob”.
It is all too easy for governments to listen to the loudest (and sometimes angriest) voices, especially when an election is looming. The present debate about immigration and asylum seekers is a good example. Much harder for more rational voices (including, hopefully, that of the Church) to make themselves heard, and ensure more just and sustainable decisions and policies.