Homeless and Rootless at Christmas

NOMAD is an organisation that has been working in Sheffield since 1989, to my knowledge.  NOMAD began in 1989 when Jacky who had experienced homelessness with children, and Barrie who had experienced homelessness as a single man, made a commitment to form an agency to assist homeless people in Sheffield. Jacky and Barrie commenced their work without any resources, from the kitchen of a Council maisonette.  My understanding, from conversations with Jacky and Barry, is that the name NOMAD originated in their experiences of receiving the answer “no” so often to their requests for help that it drove them “mad”, hence NOMAD!

One of the first initiatives that Jacky and Barrie took was to organise a Christmas meal in the maisonette for people who found themselves roofless over the festive period. They were overwhelmed but not surprised by the numbers [78] who turned up.  They also found accommodation for six individuals.

The story of NOMAD caught the attention of many of us who were concerned about homelessness. NOMAD had already illustrated that when the will is there much support can be given even when resources are tiny. A small group of us from different voluntary and religious organisation met with representatives of NOMAD on 5.9.90 and 1.10.90 to consider the provision of support for homeless and roofless people over the Christmas – New Year period of 1990/91. The meetings identified the need for premeses, finance, provisions and volunteer support.  The premises at Carver Street Wesley Methodist Church [now an Australian theme Bar] were offered as a Night Shelter.  A building [Club 81] was also offered as a day centre.  

As a result the group calling itself SHOC (Sheffield Homeless Open Christmas) launched an appeal for £10,000, and enough volunteers to provide shelter, friendship, food and clothing for those who would otherwise find themselves isolated, lonely, and even roofless over the festive season. The response was excellent. We received £15,000, over a hundred volunteers offered to help, and there were many contributions of food, clothing and bedding. Over the Christmas period, up to 25 people took shelter each night at Carver St Wesley, and up to 80 people made use of the day centre.

We had to find an alternative name to SHOC since there was another organisation using the same title, and after some discussion came up with Homeless and Roofless at Christmas [HARC].  The word Roofless was changed to Rootless soon.

I know, from Minutes of meetings, that the initial group of people who started HARC included:  Inderjit Bhogal, Briony Broome, Margaret Chamings, Phyllis Cooper, Philip Drake, Rachel Frith, Howard Long, Bob Townrow, Judith Tucker, Barrie Sefton and Chris Sissons.  Numerous others joined in later, of course, but these are the founding members.  Jacky Hague never came along to meetings.  We appointed Margaret Chamings as the Coordinator, and I was appointed the first official Chair of HARC.

Other people who were very hard workers with HARC included Captain Alan Turner of the Church Army, Jenny Hales, Mavis Percy and Bill Emmingham.  There are, of course, many others and the problem of starting to list names is that some are left out. 

We worked as small groups under the titles of:  Premeses, Finance and Provisions, and Support & Publicity.

Each group worked very conscientiously, and with great care.  Well before the days of Risk Assessments, we paid close attention to Fire, Health and Safety needs.  Each volunteer went through training sessions.  No one was allowed to work with HARC without proper training.

As it developed, HARC donated some of the surplus money to other organisations working alongside homeless and rootless people in Sheffield. HARC also initiated and sponsored a new Sunday centre which also started life in the Carver St Wesley buildings.

We adopted a Constitution, and began to take the shape of an organisation.

I believed that the work of HARC would be quite temporary and that there would soon be long term provision, including adequate housing for all.  I was convinced that 
the kind of initiatives taken by groups like HARC will not eradicate need. Only adequate housing and affordable homes would do that.

In 1990 we made a financial appeal for £10,000 and received £15,000. In 1991 we made a financial appeal for £16,000, and received £24,000. In 1992 we appealed for £20,000 and met our target again.  In addition to money there were generous gifts of food, clothing, bedding and premises…. And most important of all people gave themselves – as volunteers, over 100 each year. This response said to me that the people of Sheffield were disturbed and bothered by the levels of homelessness among us, and wanted to support any initiatives being taken to stand alongside homeless people.

Twenty years ago I said in speeches that it is unjust that anyone in Britain is homeless; that there are sufficient resources within this country, even in the depths of a recession – or depression – to end homelessness. The levels of homelessness in this country are scandalous. The kind of initiatives taken by groups like HARC up and down the country are good, but they will not end homelessness – only the provision of adequate and affordable housing will do that.  What we can offer is compassion and friendship. We will do what we can within our human and material means.  We will support the work of organisations such as Shelter at the national level, and NOMAD at the local level which campaign alongside homeless people for justice. While the initiatives taken by groups like HAC will no eradicate homelessness, they do illustrate the concern that exists over homelessness, and what can be done even where resources are small. The City-wide response to HARC has brought people from different religious political persuasions to stand alongside the homeless and form a deep fellowship with those who find themselves homeless and rootless.

Justice requires the provision of adequate and affordable housing. It is a basic human right, for each human being, to have a home, a permanent home. It is to government, at local and national level, that we look for such justice, and meeting of basic human rights.

We all have to do what we can, and we can all do something to achieve justice.

Sadly twenty years on we are in an economic recession again.

For twenty years HARC has offered support and worked with homeless and rootless people in our city. HARC does what can be done within limited resources. In no way is HARC has provided a transitional, resting place, warmth and food and friendship.  The Sunday Centre [now based in Victoria Hall], has continued to provide a service.  NOMAD continues to provide an essential service.

The need remains.  The situation is more complex.  Those needing the support of HARC and the Sunday Centre include destitute people seeking Sanctuary among us.

I don’t know where Jacky and Barry are now, but they’ve left a lasting legacy in Sheffield.

Perspectives… thoughts for Lent

lent-2Have you ever found yourself asking what do a modern city and the Bible really have in common? How does faith fit in with how we live our lives in a city which is changing as fast as York?

In previous years CoRE, the York City Centre Churches Care and Development Trust played host to the Bishop of Selby, Martin Wallace who has talked about faith and the city of York.  Last year the talks were so well attended even the standing room was full.  The themes clearly touched a chord with the audience. 

For the 2010 Lent talks five guest speakers offered their views on faith in society today.  Each explored a different topic covering volunteers, the traditions of feasting and fasting, commerce, education and health.

The Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal OBE spoke on the 1st March exploring the traditions of feasting and fasting.

Click here to read Inderjit’s talk.

Vigil, Stratford Street Mosque 5th February 2006

The vigil is the initiative of Religious Leaders in Beeston, Leeds.  It has been organised by the Yorkshire and Humber Faiths Forum. 

The YHFF was established last year to:
• Advance the contribution of faith communities in the Yorkshire and Humber Region
• Encourage and educate faith communities to work together in matters of policy, strategy and action
• Challenge all forms of discrimination and injustice against persons or groups of people, particularly on the grounds of religious belief.

The vigil will bring together members of local worshipping communities- Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, for silent prayer.  Prayer is common to all faiths.  We will meet outside the Mosque in Stratford Street to express solidarity with Muslim neighbours as they gather for afternoon prayers.

The vigil will express solidarity and respect of people of Faiths for each others’ faith.

It is important for people of all faiths and beliefs to publicly show that we stand together, want to work together to build relations of mutual respect and trust, and not allow those who misrepresent our faiths, or pour scorn on them, or convey hatred- to divide or separate us. 

The vigil is held in the context of a number of events that have occurred over the last 2-5 days:
• The Religious and Racial Hatred Bill coming before Parliament
• The BNP Leaders in Court in Leeds
• The publishing of outrageous cartoons in some Media.

All these events highlight particularly issues around the right to freedom of speech.

There are a number of competing rights and there is a duty upon us all to exercise our rights responsibly:
• All of us have the right to freedom of speech
• All have the right in a multi faith society to practice their faiths and to have the freedom to worship and pray
•  All have the right to live without being routinely scapegoated for all ills- as Muslims are being just now
• All have the right to protection from danger.

We cannot give priority to just one right.

There are rights, but we all have responsibilities also to show respect for what is holy for each other and in each other.

It is important to do all we can to promote respectful, good, open debate, to challenge injustice and preconceived opinions, and to do this without vitriol and verbal or physical violence against each other.

We all have a duty to avoid misrepresenting each other.  We can do this by learning, and being more informed, about different faiths and beliefs.

We need to work with each other to build a society in which we can all live and contribute to the welfare of all.

Inderjit Bhogal

Words read at the Vigil and shared on interviews with Radio Leeds, Radio Aire, BBC News Online, Asian Network BBC, Yorkshire Post, Leeds Evening Telegraph, Calendar News ITV and BBC Look North [3,4 and 5 February 2006].

Praying with Archbishop John Sentamu for “Lasting Peace in the Middle East”

Drumming and dancing had led the enthronement of John Sentamu as Archbishop of York.  Having witnessed this last year, I returned this month to express solidarity with his quiet vigil of seven days of prayer and fasting for “lasting peace in the Middle East”.

 Tourists were queuing to enter York Minister as I arrived.  “I’ve just come to pray with Archbishop John,” I told the attendant who directed me to St. John the Evangelist Chapel.

About 50 people were seated in the small side chapel.  A recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto lamenting the “futility of War” filled the temple.  At the front of the chapel there was a small tent held up by ropes tied on to prayer stools, Microphone Stand and the Altar Table. No danger of any storms blowing this tent over.  Kneeling in front of the tent, facing the altar, Archbishop John resplendent in his purple attire.  Beside him two small old Sunday school chairs, a prayer stool and also his renowned drum which provided the base for a small black cross.  I took a seat close to the Archbishop.  I joined in prayer using a sheet with prayers for peace commended by the Archbishop. 

At the close of his hourly round of prayers signalled by the conclusion of Elgar’s Concerto, the Archbishop rose to his feet, moved to a small side table and had a drink of water – his sole food intake during his seven day fast. 

A queue forms as people come to speak with him and he stood beside the tent listening to them.

I reflected on the symbol of the tent and all it represents in Scripture.  A tent was seen to be God’s dwelling place [Ps.78:60], and it was at “the tent of the meeting” where “the Lord would speak” with Moses [Ex. 33:7-9].   The Johannine insight summed up as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1:14] is often pictured as God pitching a tent to live amongst people.  

 I was just beginning to turn my thoughts to those whose homes and lives have been destroyed in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan when a woman came and sat beside me.  She leaned towards me and asked “Are you from Iraq?” “No” I replied.  A few minutes later she enquired, “Perhaps you are from Lebanon?” “No” I replied again.  She then went to talk with the Archbishop.  He just listened too, nodding and smiling, and shaking her by the hand to bring the encounter to a close.

When the queue had finished I went to greet the Archbishop.  I thanked him for his leadership and prayers and asked him how he was.  “I am in good shape.  Amazingly I don’t feel hungry. This suggests I had been overeating before,” he said and continued, “God is god.  Thank you for coming and for all your encouragement.  I have been amazed at all the expressions of support.”

I asked him if I could pray with him.  “Thank you” he said, and immediately turned towards the altar and started to pray for me, and for peace in the Middle East.

Then I prayed for the Archbishop:  “Thank you Holy God for your Servant John for his leadership and for his prayers.” And continued with a prayer I had formed in the Minster a few minutes earlier:

“Holy God  You call us all 
to love our neighbours as we love ourselves,
to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, and,
to love the stranger, for we all know what it is to be a stranger.
You call us to forgive one another.
Show us how to walk your way,
lead us ever by your truth, and,
bless us always with your life.
In the name of Christ.
Amen.”

We concluded with an embrace.
The clock struck again.  It was 2:45pm.

The Archbishop returned to his seat to prepare for the next hourly act of prayer.

Silent prayer continued.

Just after the clock had struck three the Archbishop moved to a microphone beside him and spoke into it.  “This is John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.  I ask you for your attention.”
The tourists around the Minister stopped in their tracks.  A hush came over the whole place as people observed silence.  The Archbishop then prayed aloud for “lasting peace in the Middle East; for all those who have been hurt or made homeless.”  He invited those gathered before him to use the prayer sheet provided to join him in the prayer of St Francis of Assisi as adapted by John Sentamu, and the Lord’s Prayer, concluding with the Universal Prayer of Peace and a saying from The Prophet used daily in prayer by Muslims.

Then he called on people to continue in the attitude of prayer for 7 minutes as Elgar’s Concerto was played again.  At the close of the music the Archbishop rose to his feet and went out of the Chapel.

Before leaving the Chapel I gave thanks again for Archbishop John and his ministry of prayer and fasting.  I observed his drum – now silent, giving way to the sounds of quiet prayer.

 

Ye have seen his Natal Star

An exceptional storm

On Christmas Day 1497 Vasco Da Gama first reached the South Eastern shores of South Africa.  He named the area Natal.  It is now called Kwazulu Natal.  Recently, I visited the area on behalf of Christian Aid to explore issues around HIV/AIDS in conversations with theologians, including those living with HIV/AIDS.                 

On the day I arrived in Pietermaritzburg, as I shared a meal with staff from the School of Religion and Theology in the University of Kwazulu Natal, the challenges raised by HIV/AIDS began to confront me. Bongi Zengele quoted Mark: 4: 37-38.

“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

Bongi said this Gospel story aroused a lively debate as people living with HIV/AIDS discussed it in a Bible Study with her.  “HIV/AIDS is the storm,” they said.  “What gives us strength and removes some of our fear is the knowledge that Jesus is with us.  It is the Church that seems to be asleep and not caring about the storm. It is time to wake up the Church.”

The storm in South Africa is extreme.  UNAIDS estimates that, at the end of 2003 there were 5.3 million people in South Africa living with HIV/AIDS, 21.5% of the population.  Nowhere is the storm worse than in Kwazulu Natal, where 37% of the population have been diagnosed HIV positive. 

These are alarming figures.  The Revd. Dr. Colin Jones, HIV/AIDS Programme Co-Ordinator, S. African Anglican Church said to me, “The exceptionality of HIV/AIDS requires an exceptionality of response.  Nothing less will do.”

An exceptional response?

What would an exceptional response involve? It would begin by acknowledging that people living with HIV/AIDS enjoy the “Hermeneutical Privilege”.  God’s will, way and word are discerned more clearly in those who tend to be dismissed as ‘victims’ and ‘the poor’.  Recognising this, the Churches’ response would be distinguished not by frozen silence or frosty judgmental attitudes, but rather by a profound respect for and embrace of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Such a response would be consistent with Jesus’ style.  Jesus was inclusive and refused to despise, judge or exclude those whom society rejected. When I met with a group of Zulu Christian women they immediately turned to the Gospel story where Jesus challenged judgemental leaders: “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  (John: 8:7.)

An exceptional response would go further, and display a readiness to listen to what people living with HIV/AIDS have to say.   Betty Govinden Devarakshanam is a lay Pastor in the Anglican Parish of St. Aidan’s, Durban, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Durban.  She said that people living with HIV/AIDS teach us about living and dying and suffering.  Using Henry Nouwen’s phrase, she said that “the churches need to listen to the ‘wounded healers’ who can be prophetic voices to question the structures that keep HIV/AIDS in place.”

An exceptional response would be based on an understanding of the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Methodist Church in Britain has produced a document entitled “The Body of Christ has AIDS.” Does Christ identify with us to the extent that His Body and Blood are HIV Positive?  Phumzile Zondi is a member of staff in the School of Religion and Theology, University of Kwazulu Natal.  She has disclosed her status as HIV Positive.  Phumzile said, “ I need the Body and Blood of Christ to be HIV/AIDS free.  I, as HIV Positive, need the Body and Blood of Christ to give me strength. I need to know that He stands with me, embraces me, holds me, loves me. I need the HIV/AIDS free Blood of Christ to make me whole.”  The Body of Christ which is the Church may have HIV/AIDS.  But the Body of Christ who is the Second Person of The Holy Trinity does not have HIV/AIDS.  The Blood of Christ of which we partake at the Eucharistic Table is not HIV Positive. 

Finally, an exceptional response would involve changing ourselves, as individuals and as churches.  Colin Jones says that “fundamentally, HIV/AIDS latches on to our most basic needs for respect, embrace and fullness of life.  It is not just about sex and individual behaviour.  It is about how structures and institutions behave, especially churches.  Churches must wake up to the fact that their patriarchal, hierarchical, parochial structures and theologies are destructive.  If we do not wake up to these realities we will not be life giving.” 

I left South Africa convinced that, as followers of Christ, we have no choice other than to wake up, and see his Natal Star.

Inderjit Bhogal
1st December 2004                       

 

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.

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