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If one member suffers, all suffer together

Millions of people across Europe observed the three minute silence on Wednesday 5th January 2005 at Noon.  I chose to join the silence in Castle Market, Sheffield.  At 1200noon precisely a bell rang.  Everyone stopped doing what they were doing.  Shoppers stopped in their tracks.  Stall holders stopped serving.  The usual hubbub of the Market Place was hushed.  The full three minute silence was kept.  People of different ages, colours, cultures and creeds stood still and silent alongside each other.  Language is no barrier in the eloquence of silence.  This mark of respect for people of many backgrounds who died so far away in the Tsunami disaster, and survivors who continue to suffer, was deeply moving. We stood together like members of a global Family mourning the loss of loved ones.  Tears were shed..

There is psychological trauma that follows tragedy.  This is normal.  It is expressed in shocked silence, denial, and anger which includes questions like why has this awful thing happened. There is also theological trauma.  This is when religious belief sincerely held is shaken.   It is well expressed in the words Jesus Christ spoke as he hung on a cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is a real question.  Most of us can identify with it.  It is a real human experience.

This question is being raised and discussed widely at present.

The Tsunami Disaster began to unfold along the coasts of Asian and African countries as many people were celebrating the Christmas festival of giving and sharing, and focussing on the good news that God is with us.  As the scale of the tragedy began to confront us there has been a phenomenal response of compassion and generosity.  Photos and Video films taken by British and European tourists in Indonesia and Sri Lanka have made the Tsunami and its trail of death and destruction visible to us.  Many questions have also been raised.

For example, how God could allow such destruction, death and suffering.  Many ask how it can be possible to believe in the existence of God in the context of overwhelming tragedy.  If God does exist has God abandoned us? 

There is value in engaging with questions like these.  Discussion is not about providing answers, but rather to provoke further exploration and clarification of the questions.

What kind of a God is it that “allows” suffering and tragedy, and who believes in such a God?  Is God some remote, powerful Being, sitting on a “sapphire throne” and who by some obscure criteria chooses to intervene in earthly matters to prevent or promote particular events?  Is God sometimes present with us and sometimes absent, if so how does God decide what to do?  Where is God when not with us?

Human reaction to tragedy is often accompanied by the need to find reasons for it, and someone to blame.  When there is no human culprit to point a finger at, it is not just a natural disaster – it must be an “act of God”.  Insurance companies use this language.  Does this practice not promote bad and irresponsible theology?

Biblical witness to God opens with a story of God creatively using the chaos that is there to make a new world. Here God does not cause the chaos or allow it but works in it and calls people to share in the task of  caring and construction.  In the New Testament, the sufferings of Christ, shows God who suffers with us.  The chaos is there.  The suffering is there.  The insight is that God is there in it.  Only a God who also suffers can help.

A horrible tragedy with a horrific loss of life and livelihood on a massive scale is before us.  The response to it  has been outstanding.  It is an inspiration that people of all Faiths and those who profess no religious faith are coming together in acts of compassion working with those who need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, and those who mourn the loss of loved ones. 

There is a need now to build on the human compassion that has shown us that we can all make a difference.  As the general public has led Governments to respond more positively to this tragedy, we remember that  in other contexts 8000 people die each day from HIV/AIDS.  24000 people die each day from hunger.  Poverty remains the biggest killer in the world. If Governments go on to also forgive debts and to eradicate poverty that would be a good long term outcome of the Tsunami Appeal.  In 2005 the British Government will hold the presidency of the European Union and the G8  Summit of powerful nations.  We can help by pressing the Government for positive global development.  Faith and humanity are not judged by their capacity to explain God or good and evil but by their contribution to positively changing the world in favour of the poorest and those who hurt most.

5th January 2005

Tavistock Gardens Meditation 17th March 2005

IT WAS A LOVELY SPRING MORNING. I SAT BESIDE THE GANDHI STATUE JUST BEFORE A MEETING ON ANTI-SLAVERY AND WROTE THIS MEDITATION.

Flowers budding and breaking
Into bloom,
None accept bondage of winter and soil,
But take life from these.

Wind blows
Where it wills.

Young people on the grass
– look up to the skies;
Older people bent over
– look down to the soil and earth.

A tree planted on 6th August
Honours the memory of the victims of HIROSHIMA.

A large rock is a tribute
“to all those who have established
And are maintaining their right
To refuse to kill.”

In their midst
Mahatma Gandhi keeps the pose of Samadhi,
An endless silent vigil
But whispering words of wisdom
To all who will listen:
“Accept no bondage,
Stay on the freedom track.
Walk and work and pray with pride.
Chains of bondage will not
Hold you forever.
Winter will pass.
Life will burst forth again,
And bloom and grow and blow
In the wind.”

Slavery and the image of God

“Am I not a man and a brother?”

This question goes to the heart of the Creation Story where it is asserted that human beings are made “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:26-27], and pronounced “very good”.  This means that each human being is of value and worth, and sacred – to be treated with respect.  It means that there is one race, the human race, with all our diversity. 

God is the source of the breath of life in all people.  Human beings are blessed with freedom of movement [“fill all the earth”] and of choice [Gen 2:16-17].  This is what it is to be human and to be made in the image of God.  It is about character as much as about physical appearance.

The Creation Story also acknowledges that as soon as there is human community, the issues of dominance and power come into play in human relationships.  Perverted selfishness leads to self preservation at the expense of others.  Man exploits woman.  Brother over powers brother. [Genesis 3 and 4 ].

The question arises: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [Genesis 4:9].

Aristotle was later to write in his Politics:

“Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves.”

Biblically this division is demonstrated in the stories of:
• Cain and Abel
• Shem/Japheth and Ham/Canaan
• Sarah and Hagar
• Isaac and Ishmael
• Joseph and his brothers
• Israel and Egypt/Babylon

It is a division that illustrates the developing power struggles and stories of domination and enslavement.  Slavery is part of the biblical story [See for example the experience of Hagar [Genesis 9:16 ], of Israel in Egypt [ Exodus 1-12 ] and read the instructions given in Leviticus 25:39-46] and many of the slaves are women.  These stories help us to remember that discrimination, racial hatred and religious bigotry is part of biblical witness.  They are stories of human failings in the context of which we are led to reflect on God’s unfailing commitment and faithfulness to people and to make our own response.

These stories illustrate the meaning of sin, all that is done to deny freedom and the fullness of life to anyone.  Sin is the active rebellion against God’s will and has devastating consequences. 

In these stories can be traced the roots of contemporary divisions along the lines of colour, creed, class and caste.

JESUS AND SLAVERY

“In as much as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40

Jesus did not specifically address the issue of slavery but he had a lot to say about equality in relationships.  He spoke against oppressive and domineering relationships.

Jesus said his Disciples are not to be characterised by oppressive/domineering relationships.  How are relationships to be sustained without being oppressive/domineering?  See Matthew 23:8-10, John15:15.

What example does Jesus’ own lifestyle reflect?

• Jesus is born in a stable.  Luke 2.
• Jesus himself took upon himself the role of service.  Luke 22:27.
• Jesus washed his Disciples’ feet.  John 13.
• Jesus refused the temptation to glorify himself.  Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13.
• Jesus rejected titles people tried to bestow upon him.  John 6:15.
• Jesus is mocked, beaten and executed.  Mark 14-16.

Jesus’ first Sermon, according to Luke, quoted the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“…He has sent me to bring release to the captives…” [Luke 4:18-19].  Matthew records Jesus as saying: “…just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40.  He also said people should let prospective slaves go free [Matthew 18:23-35].

The early Church remembered his style and reflected on it in a Hymn.  Philippians 2:6-11.  They also developed the theme of the “Body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12:12-27] where all are members and belong.

The story of Jesus, his humble birth, his ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, of transformation, his passion, his crucifixion and resurrection  helps us to remember the depths of the love of God; to reflect on God’s mission-a mission that desires freedom and the fullness of life for all, and to respond.

JESUS AND JOSEPH

Compare Psalm 105:17-22 and Philippians 2:6-11

In Psalm 105:17-22 Joseph prefigures the enslavement of Israel [Verses 23-45] that follows.  Joseph is sold as a slave, “his feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron”…he is freed and becomes “lord” of the house and “ruler” of all the possessions, and teaches wisdom.

Philippians 2:6-11 follows this pattern to reflect on Jesus who takes a downwards journey, “taking the form of a slave”, and then is “highly exalted.”

In the Psalm and in Philippians liturgy is used to remember pivotal stories, reflect on them, and to seek a response.

READING THE BIBLE

It is important to consider the whole biblical witness.  Some stories justify slavery, others challenge slavery.  In Genesis 16:9 Hagar who is running away is told by the angel of God to “return” to her mistress to be her slave.  St Paul recommended that slaves serve their masters “with fear and trembling.”  The Epistle to Philemon the Apostle returned a fugitive slave, Onesimus, to his master.

Sheffield City of Sanctuary 2008

On 18th June 2007, during Refugee Week, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield pronounced from the steps of the City Town Hall that Sheffield City Council had declared support for Sheffield as a City of Sanctuary.

On 18th September, Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary Committee organised a Press Conference in Sheffield Town Hall to spread the news.

There were a number of reports in the local press. We engaged ion a Radio 5 Live interview and Phone in, and Radio 4 gave an extended report on their Sunday programme.

On 17th October Sheffield City of Sanctuary had only it’s second AGM.  We recorded that Sheffield is UK’s first City of Sanctuary.

When I first shared the idea of Sheffield as a City of Sanctuary at a meeting on 15th October 2005, I expected us to work for three or four years to realise our objective.

I want to tell the story of our achievement, and I want to invite the Refuge Council to consider as part of your future strategy to encourage other Cities in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to become Cities of Sanctuary.

The objective of City of Sanctuary movement in Sheffield is to create a culture of welcome and hospitality for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and other vulnerable migrants among us.

This work is urgent and important in our times of open hostility and hatred towards people who come here seeking protection and security – fleeing the torture of persecution or poverty.

I came to UK with my family as a refugee in 1964.

Over the last 40 years I have observed, and often challenged, developments in our Immigration and Asylum laws and procedures which in many ways have been monstrous.

About 25 years ago, I became part of a movement of churchy and not so churchy people to challenge these laws and procedures by protesting against unjust deportations.  Sometimes this protest involved people taking sanctuary in Churches or Mosques…..not to avoid or evade law but to challenge injustice publicly, and to seek a response from Government.

I have continued to seek a fair deal for Asylum Seekers particularly.  Ten years ago I walked all the way from the steps of Sheffield Town Hall to 10 Downing Street with a letter to the Prime Minister asking that Asylum Seekers should not be detained in conventional prisons as they are not criminals.

The roots of Sanctuary are thousands of years old, and have their basis in such diverse cultures as ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek. The Hebrew tradition enshrined the experience of a formerly oppressed people into the legal code of their new society when six Cities of refuge/Sanctuary were established according to the legislation set out in the Book of Numbers 35:6-34. These Cities were able to give refuge to anyone, including a foreigner who was accused of manslaughter, thus preventing the automatic use of blood feud as a rough, ready and often indiscriminately unfair route to justice.

The Hebrew tradition provided the basis for the incorporation of Sanctuary into the life of Western European society through its adoption by the Christian Church; and with the transition of the Church from a persecuted sect into an officially recognised and promoted religion, Sanctuary became legally recognised, although always subject to certain restrictions, and often caught in the tension between the competing claims of Church and State over the boundaries of their spheres of authority.

The earliest mention of Sanctuary in England was in the code of laws issued by King Aethelbert in the years 600AD. Under Norman rule, there were 2 kinds of Sanctuary:

– a general right to Sanctuary which belonged to every church
– a particular right to Sanctuary which was granted to some cities by Royal Charter.

The number of Sanctuaries were reduced in the reign of Henry VIII, and in 1623, the general right to Sanctuary was abolished by statute law, although the basis of Sanctuary has always been moral.

Christian Sanctuaries, in early Church history, were for fugitive slaves. In Britain, the first Christian martyr, St Alban, was canonised because he was martyred for giving Sanctuary to a fleeing person.

The concept of Sanctuary re-emerged in the 20th Century, first in El Salvador, as a form of protection from the activities of ‘death squads’. From there it was taken up in the USA when churches sheltered Guatemalans and Salvadorians refused asylum.

In 1982, a Presbyterian Church in Arizona, unwilling to see people sent back to certain detention, became the first Church to offer Sanctuary. Scores more followed, and were joined by synagogues.

There have been sanctuaries for migrants in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden as well as in the UK. The best known Sanctuary in UK was that taken by Viraj Mendis in  the Parish Church of the Ascension, Hulme, Manchester 20 years ago [20 December 1986 to 18 January 1989].

I chaired the “Sanctuary Working Group” of the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland’s Community and Race Relations Unit late 80’s early 90’s.  The Methodist Conference meeting in Leicester in June 1989 adopted a set of Guidelines on Sanctuary.

The law should safeguard human rights and also offer some flexibility. If it does not do so, people will do whatever they can to protect themselves. Many have taken Sanctuary in religious buildings. 

Three years ago I began to wonder, could Sheffield become a recognised ‘City of Sanctuary’ for Asylum seekers and refugees?

Many people are now familiar with the idea of a ‘Fairtrade City’, in which a wide range of community groups and organisations make a commitment to using and selling fair-trade goods. In a similar way, a ‘City of Sanctuary’, we imagined, would be a place where significant numbers of schools, community groups, faith groups and cultural organisations, as well as local government, were committed to offering hospitality and support to refugees and asylum-seekers in their communities.

Many people who support refugees and asylum-seekers experience the difficulty of constantly reacting to ever-harsher legislation and media coverage. It can be difficult to feel a sense of achievement or progress towards a more hospitable and humane society. Working towards ‘City of Sanctuary’ status for Sheffield we felt would represent a positive common goal and aspiration for a wide variety of organisations, groups and individuals. Just as with a ‘Fairtrade City’, it could embody a set of explicit goals for the number of local organisations that signed up to the initiative, and a commitment to broaden support for the idea in order to gradually influence the culture of the city as a whole.

Sheffield has an excellent record of support for asylum-seekers and refugees, and a diverse and thriving multicultural population. This made it ideally placed to be the first city to adopt the goal of becoming a ‘City of Sanctuary’ for people in need of safety from persecution.

Other cities in the region and beyond may follow the direction with Sheffield leading the way.

Following a meeting on 15th October 2005, to discuss Sanctuary, many organisations adopted the following resolution:

“Our organisation recognises the contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the City of Sheffield, and is committed to offering hospitality to people who come here in need of safety from persecution.  We support the goal of Sheffield becoming a recognised City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees,”

We called for support from Sheffield’s Faith Leaders from all Faiths, Political Leaders, Community Organisations, Educational Institutions and all people committed to offering hospitality and support to asylum seekers and refugees in our City.

Almost 100 organisations have signed up so far, including community organisations, worship centres, Students Unions of both our Universities, a number of Businesses, our Faith Leaders from different  Faiths, and, our City Council that represents different political persuasions.

On 18th June 2007 Sheffield became UK’s first City of Sanctuary.

The City of Sanctuary Committee, just 8 of us, is now beginning to consult with all who support us to develop goals for a City of Sanctuary.  In consultations with supporters we’ve written a vision that states what a City of Sanctuary looks like, and also criteria for a City of Sanctuary.

On 4th June 2008, over 100 people from 23 different Cities/Towns/Villages [England, Wales and Scotland] met to hear the story of developments in Sheffield.  They went back to their own contexts to explore how their own area could follow Sheffield’s lead.

There are now City of Sanctuary working groups in Bradford, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Leicester, Oxford and London.  The London group is to be launched on 12th November 2008 at St Martins in the Field. 

The Refugee Council is supporting the City of Sanctuary movement nationally.

There is opportunity to work with local people to counter some of the hostile attitudes that drive government policy and to create a culture of hospitality and welcome. 

The significant fact about the City of Sanctuary is that it is a grassroots movement.  The lesson from Sheffield is to involve people and organisations from all backgrounds, to create a groundswell of support and an unstoppable momentum.

Go for it!

Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal

Sheffield as a City of Sanctuary

Biblical Roots and Christian History

The roots of Sanctuary are thousands of years old, and have their basis in such diverse cultures as ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek. The Hebrew tradition enshrined the experience of a formerly oppressed people into the legal code of their new society when 6 towns of refuge/Sanctuary were established according to the legislation set out in the Book of Numbers 35:6-34. These towns were able to give refuge to anyone, including a foreigner who was accused of manslaughter, thus preventing the automatic use of blood feud as a rough, ready and often indiscriminately unfair route to justice.

The Hebrew tradition provided the basis for the incorporation of Sanctuary into the life of Western European society through its adoption by the Christian Church; and with the transition of the Church from a persecuted sect into an officially recognised and promoted religion, Sanctuary became legally recognised, although always subject to certain restrictions, and often caught in the tension between the competing claims of Church and State over the boundaries of their spheres of authority.

The earliest mention of Sanctuary in England was in the code of laws issued by King Aethelbert in the years 600AD. Under Norman rule, there were 2 kinds of Sanctuary:

– a general right to Sanctuary which belonged to every church
– a particular right to Sanctuary which was granted to some cities by
Royal Charter.

The number of Sanctuaries were reduced to seven in the reign of Henry VIII, and in 1623, the general right to Sanctuary was abolished by statute law, although the basis of Sanctuary has always been moral.

Christian Sanctuaries, in early Church history, were for fugitive slaves. In Britain, the first Christian martyr, St Alban, was canonised because he was martyred for giving Sanctuary to a fleeing person.

The concept of Sanctuary re-emerged in the 20th Century, first in El Salvador, as a form of protection from the activities of ‘death squads’. From there it was taken up in the USA when churches sheltered Guatemalans and Salvadorians refused asylum.

In 1982, a Presbyterian Church in Arizona, unwilling to see people sent back to certain detention, became the first Church to offer Sanctuary. Scores more followed.

There have been sanctuaries for migrants in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden as well as in the UK. The best known Sanctuary in UK was that taken by Viraj Mendis in a church in Manchester 20 years ago.

The law should safeguard human rights and also offer some flexibility. If it does not do so, people will do whatever they can to protect themselves. Many have taken Sanctuary in religious buildings.
Sanctuary as a Movement of Hospitality

In our times of widespread public hostility towards asylum-seekers, the challenge is to broaden the concept of Sanctuary, recognising that the most fundamental defence for excluded people is the creation of hospitable and supportive local communities. This is the aim of the City of Sanctuary movement in Sheffield – to make solidarity and hospitality toward asylum-seekers and refugees a part of the mainstream of life for our local communities.

In this it is similar to the idea of a ‘Fairtrade City’, in which a wide range of community groups and organisations make a commitment to using and selling fair-trade goods. A City of Sanctuary would be a place where significant numbers of schools, community groups, faith groups and cultural organisations, as well as local government, were publicly committed to offering hospitality and support to refugees and asylum-seekers. They might put this commitment into practice in many different ways – through offering friendship or advocacy, encouraging refugees’ involvement in their activities, or displaying public support, perhaps in the form of a sign outside their premises declaring ‘We welcome asylum-seekers and refugees.’

We recognise that asylum policy and decision-making must be decided at a national level, and that the power of local communities to defend individuals will often be limited. But within this legal framework there is the opportunity for local communities both to make the existing asylum system more humane for the asylum-seekers who live amongst us, and to counter some of the hostile public attitudes that drive government policy.

Sheffield already has an excellent record of support for asylum-seekers and refugees, and a diverse and thriving multicultural population. This makes it ideally placed to be the first city to adopt the goal of becoming a City of Sanctuary for people in need of safety from persecution. Other cities in the region and beyond may even follow our lead, helping to influence public attitudes and policy at a national level.

Following a meeting on 15th October 2005, to discuss the City of Sanctuary proposal, many organisations have already adopted the following resolution:

‘Our organisation recognises the contribution of asylum-seekers and refugees to the City of Sheffield, and is committed to offering hospitality to people who come here in need of safety from persecution. We support the goal of Sheffield becoming a recognised ‘City of Sanctuary’ for refugees and asylum-seekers.’

We call for support from Sheffield’s Faith Leaders from all Faiths, Political Leaders, Community Organisations, Educational Institutions and all people committed to offering hospitality and support to asylum seekers and refugees in our City.

Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal & Craig Barnett

City of Sanctuary is supported by the Northern Refugee Centre, ASSIST, Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield, Hallam Diocesan Justice & Peace Commission, Student Action for Refugees, Sheffield Conversation Club, The Drum Community Media Centre, Victoria Hall Methodist Church, Christ Church Pitsmoor, and St. Cuthbert’s Fir Vale.

One race, the Human race

All human beings are made in the image of God.  Ethnic diversity is part of God’s wisdom, will and purpose.  One pattern – the image of God, but an amazing diversity.

Science confirms what theology has always insisted.  With all our distinctive, unique features, we are incredibly alike.

This means that the old theory of different races is out.  There are not different races any more than there are different castes, where one caste is inferior to another.

If we are one race how are our differences to be explained?  Is it our genes?  Our environment?  Different climates and therefore different skin colours, different foods and cuisines, different music and dance styles, different fashions and designs different Messengers and experiences of God, different scriptures, different responses to God and therefore different patterns of worship and prayer, and different religions.

Because we are different, we all have something of value to offer to each other and this enlarges us all.  Fantastic!  A cause for rejoicing and celebration.  So we celebrate diversity and promote equality.

Of course there are those who feel threatened by diversity and see no reason to celebrate it.  The politics of “race hate” are alive and spreading.  Racism – an evil grounded in the theory of different races which has been used to justify white supremacy – continues to influence individuals and institutions.

As long as human diversity is feared, human relations across ethnic, religious and colour differences will be jeopardised.  It is important therefore to protect, promote and celebrate diversity constantly.

The Biblical tools to resource this work include the insistence that we are all made “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:26].  Discrimination in Church is further challenged by the insistence that we are all members of “the Body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12: 12-27].  These scriptural insights mean that Christians cannot give support to any ideology that discriminates against anyone on the basis of colour, gender, age, ability or sexuality.

We are called to do all we can in our communities, congregations and companies to ensure that equality and diversity will be embedded in our vision, structures and practice.  Give no support to anyone or any view that discriminates against or shows disrespect to people.

The test of any nation, organisation, community or congregation is its capacity to accommodate diversity and promote equality without wanting to dominate, diminish or destroy those who are different.  Constantly check your own attitudes and actions.  Always ask the question:  Will what is being planned enhance and maximise equality and diversity?  Settle for nothing less than actions and attitudes that promote equality and diversity.

Inderjit Bhogal

Morley-Thirukkovil, 24-30 January 2005

I accompanied Methodist Minister, the Rev Thurairajah Samuel of Morley, near Leeds, when he visited his home village Thirukkovil in East Sri Lanka.  He lost several members of his family and his family house in the Tsunami Disaster on 26th December 2005. This is my Report to the Morley Town Council upon my return.

“We are shocked at the destruction of the Tsunami.  This is the first time we have experienced such a disaster.  It will take years to recover from it.” These are words of the Rev Noel Fernando, President of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka.  The Methodist Church is the most severely affected of the Protestant Churches in the Country, having lost many Members.  Many of the Methodist Chapels on the Eastern Coast are damaged beyond repair.

Churches and Church Schools were centres of rescue and relief in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. A month on, most people made homeless by the Disaster are in shelter in Refugee Camps.  “The long term objective is to rebuild broken and repairable houses, to help people find employment, to provide support for widows and orphaned children, and to offer trauma counselling,” says the Rev Fernando who was the first person we interviewed .  We met him in Colombo.

Having undertaken a twelve hour flight from Manchester to Colombo, and then a bone shaking twelve hour drive from Colombo to Thirukkovil, we arrived on the Tsunami affected Eastern Coast on a bright moon-lit night, about 11.30 p.m. 26th January. The route included a mountain pass of many hair-pin bends, and spectacular scenery of lagoons, colourful Towns, Tea Plantations, a myriad Palm Trees and a variety of animal life.  The “Pearl in the Indian Ocean” is a fitting title for this beautiful country.  The beauty of the place and its gentle people gives a context to the years of communal violence and suffering, and the devastation of the Tsunami.

The moon shone like a search light all around us.  We realised we were in Tsunami damaged area.  The sea to our left , with blue white waves lapping on the shore just a few yards away, was restrained now like a Dog on a lead.  We drove on in total quietness, silenced by the awesome destruction along the Coast.  Driving over damaged, fragile bridges was terrifying.

We arrived at our destination, Thirukkovil Methodist Church on the stroke of midnight.  The Rev Rasarethnam Dayanithy welcomed us.  Soon we learned that he had been conducting a Service on that fateful Boxing Day, when he heard three bangs in quick succession around 8.55 a.m.  His first thought was that LTT fighters had fired Bombs at the Army.  Then he began to hear the shouts, “Sea is coming, Sea is coming” and water began to come into the Church.  Every one rushed out in panic and the minister led them into the upper floor of the Orphanage in the Grounds.  As a swimmer, he then went down and started to rescue as many people as he could.

“It was a nightmare” said the Minister.  Having heard the story we tried to sleep.
  
The news that Sam was in the Village had spread quickly.  Friends and relatives started to arrive early in the morning to meet him.  This reunion was touched with pain and pleasure. There was embrace and smiles and tears.

We made our way towards the Sea and towards Sam’s family house.  It took practically an hour to walk a few Hundred yards.  Along the way many of Sam’s relatives and friends came meet him and to weep with him.  The local Opposition MP Mr Nehru came and joined us and made his view clear that “the Government is not helping us.  Help is coming from other countries but little from our own Government.  They are using money to build Military power.  Money should be used to build people and property.”

As we walked along we could see that practically every house within about a quarter of a mile of the Sea has been destroyed or severely damaged by the Tsunami.  Some work has been done to clear Roads but there is no sign of any work on Houses.

We reached Sam’s House.  From a distance Sam pointed it out.  There was just a mound of broken walls.  The bright Green paint of inner walls stood out in the searing Sunshine.  “Here is a part of the Steel Sheeting from the Roof,” he said while we were still a short distance away.

I stood with Sam on the mound of rubble which is all that is left of his family House.  It was a powerful emotional moment.

 No words, just silence and tears.

Sam grew up here, just a few yards from the Sea.  We could hear what today was the gentle lapping of the waves on the Beach.

A month ago the waves rose to the height of the Coconut trees around us, killed hundreds of people, and smashed the Houses.  One person said, “The Wave was like a Snake with five heads that rose high and came down on us.  It came very fast.  It took many people with it.”  All the wells are polluted.

Next door to Sam’s House we could see a Grave in the neighbour’s garden.  We were told that buried here is a mother and her six month child.  The mother had run into the House and locked the Door for safety.  The Sea broke in and filled the House drowning both mother and child.

I conducted a short Service of Holy Communion, using Sam’s well as the Altar.  We used Bread and Coconut Juice.  The Coconut was taken from the nearest tree.  The Pulley used to draw water from the Well formed a Cross in the background.  All these symbols remind us that God shares our hurt and pain. 

Several members of Sam’s family and neighbours who had gathered joined us.

As I broke the Bread and gave it out I remembered in prayer all those whose lives, homes and livelihood have been broken by the Tsunami.

 Standing and praying with Sam, his family, friends and neighbours on this spot was an important contribution to make on my part.

We moved on along the Golden Sands of the Beach.  A solitary Boat stood beside the Sea.  All other Boats from this once thriving Fishing Village were destroyed.

About 50-60 people had joined us by mid-day.  Sam invited them all to sit under the shade of a tree beside a Well.  He counted their number.  The two of us them handed out 50 parcels we had made up with Gifts from the people of Morley.  Sam explained where and who these Gifts were from.

We also gave out Gifts of 1000 Rupees [approx. £5.00] to 105 Households.  This money represents about a Months wage for local people.  Most of those who received the Money were Fishermen who cannot earn Money from their trade at present.

We sat in the Sand with the Fishermen and listened to their stories.  This is the poorest community here.  They have lost all but one Boat.  They are trying to repair another one.  They have lost homes and their livelihood.

At one point I asked them if the Tsunami had made them question their Faith and the existence of God.  “Not at all,” they said.  The question had not arisen for them until I’d asked them.  They had an unquestioning confidence that God is with them and had been with them in the Tsunami. 

“The Sea has been a source of life to us.  The same Sea became the source of death – this is what we cannot understand,” they said.

Before we left one Fisherman climbed a Coconut tree.  He dropped down several Coconuts.  These were cut and we were given Juice to drink.  We sat beside a Well and drank Coconut Juice.

There is a dignity here that has not been shattered or broken. 

We sat with some of the poorest people on the Earth now, in the Sand, listened to them and received of their generosity.  They fed us and gave us all they could – their stories, their tears, their smiles, their time, and Coconut Juice.  It has been our privilege that they have allowed us to enter into their experiences.

We later met some of the people of Thirukkovil in a nearby Relief Camp.  They were being given Pedialyte [ replaces fluids lost through vomit and diarrhoea ], Mattresses and Mosquito Nets.

Families are sheltered here in small Tents with practically no furnishings, and as someone said, “no water, no toilet, no bathroom.”  The toilet area is now full.  The water supply is not plentiful. 

One man said to me, “we have no houses, no jobs, only rest.”

There are no facilities for Children.  Schools have opened now but many children from these Camps are not returning.  What they need is trauma counselling first. 

Poor Fishing Families and middle-class Families Camp side by side.  The well to do Families have Motor Bikes parked outside their Tents.  One woman showed me that her Tent has no Furnishings of any kind.  She showed me three bags of Rice and a bag of Sugar.  “That’s all we eat now,” she said.  Rice Pudding. 

There are 500 people in this particular Camp.  We saw five such Camps between Thirukkovil and nearby Komari, another devastated village

How long will people have to live like this ?

We did go to the School in Thirukkovil at Assembly time.  Sam gave out the Letters that had been sent by children in Morley Schools.  It was clear that some classes are depleted on their numbers because Children hurt and bereaved by the Tsunami devastation are in no way ready to return. 

What are the immediate needs now?  How can the people of Morley help?

1.  Children in Camps need Therapy and Playschool type of support.  Arts and Crafts materials are needed.  Art plays an essential part in trauma counselling.  There is a need for Exercise Books, Pens, Pencils, Crayons etc.

2.  Toilet facilities, especially for Women, are needed in Camps.  Two, at least, are needed now.

3.  A Day Centre for Older People is needed, to provide somewhere to sit. A mid-day meal could be provided.  A meals on wheels service could be provided.  A small three wheeler vehicle is needed for this.

All these items have to be provided as soon as possible.  Sam can do a lot to get things moving while he is in Thirukkovil.

Long term, Sam is discussing this with people.  Essentially people need jobs and houses.  The Government has to take responsibility for housing needs.  What we can do is to provide at least one Boat for the Fishermen.

The people of Thirukkovil are enormously grateful to the people of Morley for their solidarity, and look forward to a developing and closer relationship of mutual support.

2 February 2005

“You shall also love the stranger” Deut 10:19

The most important lesson I learned in all that I saw and heard during my year of office as President of the Methodist Conference is summed up in the words of a young Bosnian Muslim survivor.   He shared these words at the first Holocaust Memorial event held in Britain on 27th January this year.   He spoke of so-called “ethnic cleansing”.   He described how a diverse community of good neighbours was suddenly brought to the point of enmity and hostility to each other; and how he was tortured by people he knew.   Then he spoke these words, and I shall never forget them:

“When one group starts to treat another group of people as less than human that’s the beginning of genocide.”

The diverse communities of Birmingham, Bradford, Belfast as well as Bosnia need to hear the wisdom and warning in the words of this young man.   Such atrocity could happen in Bosnia – we don’t want it in Britain.

“Ethnic Cleansing”  – as it is termed – is rooted in doctrines of ethnic and religious purity.   It fears diversity and difference.   People say “You are different, you are dirty, you cannot live near me.   You must go and live somewhere else.”   To bring people to a point where they move out, violence is threatened or unleashed.

History is littered with ethnic atrocity and genocide.   There have been times when religion has been used to sanction or justify such atrocity.

The book Religion and Atrocity: Unholy Alliance by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis spells this out very well.   Any person of good will and good faith is ashamed when religion is abused to sanction or justify atrocity.   Where religion is used to sanction or justify atrocity, people of good will and good faith will reject it.   People will not trust or respect the judgement and wisdom of systems, structures, religion or individuals that support separation of people, however that is attempted.

There have been – and are – numerous ideologies or philosophies or theologies that have been used to separate people.
• the caste system
• the theory of many races, and purity of races
• the doctrine of apartheid
• the strategy of ethnic cleansing

Religion is co-opted in these systems to accord purity and cleanness to the established groups and to support or justify their power or empires, if you like.

In all the ideologies of separation I have listed, ancient and modern, prime of place is given to those of lighted skin colours.   We can see it , for example, in Noah who spoke words of curse to his son Canaan who would have been black; in the actions of Abraham who drove out his black wife, Hagar; when Moses is criticised by Aaron and Miriam because he had married a black, Cushite woman.

Such colour discrimination came to be ritualised by language of purity and defilement.   The privileged people were pure, and the rest were unclean.   The pure and the unclean or impure could not interact.   In time, the most sacred of religious qualities, holiness, came to mean being pure – and separate and free of contact with people, animals and things that could defile one.   The holy ones, the pure, were seen to be close to God who is holy and separate.   Everyone else is an outsider, unclean.   The one who is different is the one who is not pure.  

Stricter and stricter boundaries were drawn between the inner, holy, circle and those outside it.   The “insiders” has space to be.   The “outsiders” were outside it.   They had no place.   They were no people.   These are the ones who Biblically are referred to as “strangers”.   Strangers are the ones to whom the insiders owe nothing, the ones from whom the insiders should keep separate.   The strangers are nameless masses who are an irritation, and embarrassment and unwelcome.   To be a stranger is to be denied access to life.

The Biblical term for them is Habiru.   Most Biblical scholars now regards Habiru as an alternative rendering of Hebrew.   The term Hebrew has roots in the word abar which means “to cross over”.   Hebrew therefore id the one who crosses over boundaries in the quest for life.   As one author notes (W. Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, Fortress 1991, p293), Hebrew are “the people who finally became the ‘people of God’ in the OT [and] are among some of those [who had been] declared ‘strangers’, ‘outsiders’, ‘threat’” – by the status quo, i.e. the Egyptian Empire.

In the story of Joseph in Egypt, we read (Gen 43:32):

“They served him by himself,
and them by themselves,
because the Egyptians
might not eat bread with the Hebrews,
for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”

The word “abomination” shows how the idea of separateness had been ritualised for members of the status quo.   To eat with the stranger would be defiling.   This ritualising developed into laws and regulations regarding food, sexuality and the priesthood.

In God’s design, the Hebrew, the strangers, the no-people, became God’s people.

God hears the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt.  
God hears them and accords them status.
The stranger, the outsider, is seen to be included in God’s community.

This community now lives by a divine ethic.   God is seen to side with the stranger.   God’s people are required to emulate God.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth has written (Faith in the Future, DLT 1995, p.78):

“The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19:18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality.   But it is not:  it is only part of it.   The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger.   Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves.   The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.”

That is a remarkable piece of illumination.   “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the instruction that is readily quoted.   Hardly ever do we hear God’s oft repeated command to “love the stranger”.

In Deuteronomy 12:17-19, we read:

“17 The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,
18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
 and who loves the strangers,
 providing them with food and clothing.
19 You shall also love the stranger,
 for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Why should you love the stranger?
Because God loves the stranger…and remember, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Hebrew – the stranger in Egypt, to whom God showed love, is now required to love the stranger.

God’s holiness is not seen in God’s remoteness or separateness from the stranger, but by God’s utter concern for the stranger, by God’s adoption and embrace of the stranger.   God requires nothing less from those who would be holy.   God is outraged when “the stranger residing among you  suffers extortion” (Ez 22:7).   This is the god who is seen in Jesus of Nazareth.   God is the incarnate one, the one who is with us.

Jesus cuts through boundaries and separation between who is considered to be holy and profane.   You remember the insiders who would not eat with the outsiders, the stranger, because that would be an “abomination”.   Jesus’ most subversive and radical activity, for which he is most criticised, is to eat with the social outcasts of his day.   It is said that “he eats with sinners and tax collectors”.   The tax collectors were not flavour of the day because they collaborated with the “outsiders”.

Jesus expressed his solidarity with the poor and marginalized people of his day by eating with them.   He welcomes the poor, “the unclean”, “the sinners”, the harlots and publicans and ate with them.   In this he showed God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life.   He demonstrates a holiness of connectedness not separateness, of intimacy not aloofness.

Jesus
• breaks down barriers
• crosses our boundaries
• includes those who would have been excluded
• eats with anyone who would eat with him.
Everything Jesus did and said demonstrated these things.

Guardians of boundaries and holiness of separation don’t like such behaviour.   In the end, Jesus’ actions crucified him

Jesus has left an example for his community.   Practise hospitality.   Eat with each other.   Eat with the most vulnerable ones.   Eat with “the stranger”.   Your lifestyle should be one of hospitality and solidarity, not hostility and segregation.

The ethics of so many are about
 Segregation
Division
Derision
Hostility
They may extend to “love of neighbour”.

The Biblical and gospel demand is for a different, counter-cultural ethic:
 “God loves the stranger…
   You shall also love the stranger.”

The strength of this requirement is seen in the fact that it is stated 37 times in the Hebrew Bible.   Jesus demonstrates the ethics of hospitality and eating with outcasts, and says that in welcoming the stranger, one welcomes Christ:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

To be made human in the image of God is to be:
 Creative  “revolting against everything that is opposed to humanity”
   (James Cone, Theology of Liberation  Orbis, sixth edition 1995, p 93.)
 
Hospitable  revolting against everything that is opposed to the welcome of “strangers”

Being in the image of God is about recognition of the fact that there is one race, the human race.

It is also the vision and theology that is at the root of every act of resistance by black people when they are refused the status of being human when they are refused welcome and hospitality.

To express confidence and belief in the image of God is to say
yes to our colour
yes to our hospitality

And it is to say “no” to those who think they are God but end up laying an assault on God’s  image.
“Black theology emphasises the right of blacks to be black and by so doing to participate in the image of God” (Cone p 93)

To participate in the image of God is to rebel against structures of oppression and segregation; it is to participate in the liberation struggle against the forces of inhumanity.

Ivy Gutridge MBE

Ivy Gutridge came to Wolverhampton from her home town of Swindon with her husband Ken. A committed Methodist all her life, Ivy was a member at St John’s Methodist Church in Wolverhampton. After a member of family who was seriously ill and cared for by Ivy had died, Ivy reluctantly took on the role of Note Taker at meetings of the newly formed Wolverhampton Interfaith Group (WIFG ). She became Honorary Secretary of the WIFG from 1974 to 1998, initially using her own home as the Office. Ivy’s infinite capacity to devote herself to people was focussed on the work of the Wolverhampton Inter-Faith Group. Ivy died in June 2004 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for a number of years.

Ivy moved on from her nervous beginnings, including theological reservations, to becoming the driving inspiration of the WIFG. Ivy’s energy, courtesy and organisational ability brought credibility to the group. Ivy’s genius was that she realised how important it was to promote interfaith dialogue when it was not fashionable. Her vision and foresight has meant that the seeds she began to sow Thirty Years ago will continue to bear fruit well after her life.

In Wolverhampton Ivy worked behind the scenes to resolve conflicts, heal divisions and build relationships of mutual trust and respect. Ivy also travelled to other UK towns and cities to help develop interfaith groups.

In 1983 Ivy was appointed to the Methodist Committee for Relationships With People Of Other Faiths. She did much work from her own home towards the book ‘God Of All Faith’ put together by that Committee. Ivy was active in the founding of the national lnterfaith Network (UK) and was elected its first woman Vice-Chair in 1992. Ivy never sought any limelight or recognition, but was honoured for her Interfaith work when she was awarded the MBE in 1994.

Ivy regarded interfaith dialogue as her life’s work. She conducted it with humility, and was an inspiration to others. She was known in Wolverhampton as ‘Queen Of Interfaith’. Ivy’s interest in Interfaith dialogue was not academic but arose out of an intense desire to find out about, and honour, other people’s faith at a person to person level. She believed in people’s freedom and right to hold their own religious beliefs. A Muslim leader gave the address at a service of remembrance and thanksgiving for her, concluding with the words “As a Muslim, I would recommend her for Sainthood.” A fitting tribute to one who is among the pioneers of the Interfaith movement in the UK.

“Neither on this Mountain, nor in Jerusalem” John 4:21

Sometimes I avoid Chapel Walk. I don’t have time to talk to John who sells the Big Issue. But I like to sit on the bench outside the front doors of the Vic, Victoria Hall. Sometimes I take a mug of coffee with me,-and sometimes an extra one for John. Recently John asked me about the Four Church buildings on the Road about there: The Unitarian Chapel, St. Maries Cathedral, URC, and The Vic. We talked about their different traditions and styles of worship “Do they all worship the same God?” asked John. “I don’t think we all worship the same God,” I replied, “but there is only One God- we all worship the One God.” He then said- “You could all worship in one building. Why do you all need such a large separate place?” I said Jesus had a vision- he longed for a time when people would worship God “in spirit and truth.”

In a conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus used the phrase ‘neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem.’ Do you have a spot where you like to sit? Your watering hole? Your Jacob’s well…the well at which you rest? Wells are familiar places in the Bible. They are often the places where women and men can meet- perhaps because they are public places and are safe spots. Isaac met his bride to be, Rebecca, by a well. And Jacob met his bride, Rachel, at a well. A well provided water in a desert area. Wells are therefore symbols of the gift of life from God to people. Sometimes the life God gives is described in the language of marriage. Israel is seen as God’s bride. The Church is seen as the bride of Christ. The Samaritan woman-from a despised group- met Jesus at a well. Does this encounter suggest that God gives (has given) new life through the most unlikely encounters, and through surprising relationships, through despised people…? Can you think of a time when you were refreshed by a foreigner? -or a marginalised person?   Just picture Jesus sitting at the well, in the midday heat, shattered by his journey. He is tired and thirsty. He is prepared to ask for a drink. “Give me a drink.” The conversation begins on the theme of water. It moves on to the theme of worship. And the whole chapter ends with Jesus returning to Cana- where he transformed water into wine, and on this occasion restores someone to life.

The progression is similar to chapter 2. • There is a conversation involving water, and transformation of water into wine. • It moves on to the theme of worship involving the cleansing of the Temple. • It concludes with the reference to Jesus resurrection.   So in Ch 2 and Ch 4, the structure is: Water Worship Life, new life.

In both chapters – There is ordinary water, and the water of life – There is a reference to Temples, and Jesus’ critique of Temples – His distinction between temporal places of worship, and true centre of worship which is within us – The body is the Temple – The worship God desires is worship in spirit and truth, worship which is neither defined by nor confined by buildings.

The real Temple is not found in Buildings, but in the Body.   The essence of temple worship is as temporary or time related just as a drink of water does not quench thirst for long. True worship, worship in spirit and truth, is equated with drinking the water Jesus offers which “will become…a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”   “Sir”-says the woman- “give me this water.”  The conversation begins with Jesus saying “give me a drink.” It moves on to a point where the woman says to Jesus “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty.”