Virtual Sanctuary

Part of the Communion In Times Of Coronavirus series of gentle reflections
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Inderjit Bhogal, 2020

BUILDING WELCOME, MAINTAINING CONNECTION WITH REFUGEES

Notes prepared for an interview on Radio Sheffield on Sunday 19th April 2020

What can churches do?

We are all in a very difficult coronavirus situation, but we are not all in the same boat.

We are all in the same sea and storm, but there are different degrees and levels of protection. Some are in well protected boats, others are in fragile boats, some are in dingys, and some people are in the water looking for life belts of rescue. There are people, especially refugees and those seeking sanctuary among us who are more vulnerable than others.

Coronavirus is universal, but the degree and levels of protection are very different. A universal aspect of COVID-19 is isolation, and a very real sense of fear and uncertainty and trauma.

Trauma is a universal, global phenomenon now. It is no longer just the experience of the most marginalised people. No one is privileged or protected in Coronavirus. No one is immune. We all know what it is to be separated from those we love.

Trauma is not new for people seeking sanctuary and refugees, but we can all empathise with them, as we all share this reality.

Coronavirus is now a double jeopardy, trauma on top of trauma, hurt for people who have already been in situations of harm and danger through war, and who already carry with them deep scars of violence.

The danger for many “asylum seekers” and refugees is that loneliness and destitution is deepened and exacerbated. All the familiar structures and support are removed.

People without homes, and people far from homes, people whose homes have been destroyed by war and extreme weather are at great risk.

The media was full of news of refugees prior to 31 January. What is happening to refugees now, how are they faring at the borders of Europe? We need more news from the wider world. We need more information about the most vulnerable.

And it is important to keep before us news and information about people seeking and taking sanctuary among us.   

This week there have been reports of refugees in peril in the Mediterranean Sea.

23 Italian MPs and three MEPs wrote to the Italian Prime Minister imploring him “act quickly to help those who need to be rescued at sea. We hear news of a shipwreck, of boats laden with humanity, desperately trying to reach the European coast”.

Information provided by Non-Government Organisations on Easter Sunday stated that four boats, carrying 258 migrants between them were in distress, in the waters between Malta and Italy.

47 of them were rescued by SMH, a Spanish NGO.

This is the time of the year when the numbers of refugees in the Mediterranean increase. 

In addition, there have been bombings in Libya close the coast where migrants are kept in detention centres, and this pushes them to leave.

Italy says its ports are “unsafe” owing to coronavirus.

Shamefully, Britain maintains a hard line for example in offering welcome to unaccompanied refugee children whose lives are in danger. According to charities working with refugees, such as Safe Passage, the majority of the around 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who have arrived in Britain since 2010 have got here using dangerous travel methods including hiding in the back of trucks, further endangering their lives. Less than 1000 unaccompanied refugee children have reached the UK through government schemes. Even this week, children who have been legally accepted to join families in the UK remain trapped in overcrowded refugee camps on Greek Islands.

Refugees have practically disappeared from news broadcasts.

Coronavirus is being used by governments as an excuse to say refugees cannot be rescued because it would not be safe to do so.  This is alarming in the face of words of solidarity towards people who suffer the most. Church leaders can be more audible in expressing concern, and calling for justice for refugees. Local churches can intentionally ensure refugees in their localities, and in their prayers, are not neglected.

Build virtual sanctuaries within your virtual congregations, to ensure those in the double trauma I have described above are not isolated. Support then through local sanctuary charities and networks. Search out your local City of Sanctuary group. Donate financial support through their website. Offer other support as you are able in the circumstances.

When we come past Coronavirus, we must maintain the priority of protective hospitality for the most vulnerable while we ensure that care workers, local and those who are here from other countries, have greater justice in terms of worker rights and wages. We must not lift the pedal off the need to love more those who have been valued the least.

I live in Sheffield. I am well aware that the Sanctuary Centre in Sheffield which has provided a hub for meeting and friendship has had to close owing to COVID-19 and government guidelines.

City of Sanctuary Sheffield has over the years built up a vast network of partners, volunteers and supporters. City of Sanctuary is now the single point of reference for refugees and supporters in Sheffield.

We are working with them now to build a “virtual sanctuary” to nurture and sustain the sense of belonging, friendship and support by:

  • Developing ways to keep people connected and supported, and ensure all asylum seekers in accommodation have WiFi connection
  • WhatsApp Groups with personal messages of encouragement and practical tips, food deliveries, financial support and learning languages
  • Maintaining contacts for legal and health matters through remote service delivery, critical in ensuring pathways to justice and guidelines on rights are not disrupted
  • Maintain telephone check-ins
  • Supporting home schooling with teaching support and laptops
  • Directing supporters to online petitions

The COVID-19 Handbook for asylum seekers is being developed and kept up-to-date online by many partner organisations working together.

You and your church and organisation can support work like this with offers of help and donations through the website, and join campaigns like Lift the Ban aimed at giving asylum seekers the right to work. Link up and maintain contact with refugees as you are able to.

Asylum seekers live on £5.39 per day. Many of them are sharing bedrooms with complete strangers, with all the associated fears. Government guidelines for social distance are impossible to follow. Many of them are in this precarious situation longer than expected owing to delays in processing their cases. The need for safe accommodation is acute.

Exorbitant fees are required now from people who people who have been accepted as qualifying for leave to remain in Britain following an application for asylum. These applications used to be free. However, the fees are now up to £2,389 for an application that may cost £375 top process. Fee increases were announced in the budget on 11 March 2020. These excessive fees are paid by people already in vulnerable situations and are used to help fund the immigration system. Vulnerable people should not be subsidising the system. Fees should reflect the cost.  

Within all their other priorities refugees and asylum seekers have a great spirit of helping and surviving. One of my friends, a refugee from Liberia, has mobilised people to form a choir, and arranges worship and pastoral support. He is providing training on mental wellbeing. He is a dedicated worker providing incredible support to other refugees from a knowledge of personal trauma.  He insists need to create empathy more than sympathy.

Inderjit Bhogal

This article can be downloaded for use here
All documents on this topic are located here

A Creed for Our Times

Part of the Communion in Times of Coronavirus series of gentle reflections
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Inderjit Bhogal, 2020

We believe God dwells in our midst

The refuge and shelter of our souls,

In whom is our sanctuary and in whom we live and have our being, and eternal life.

We believe the life of God flows in us and restores our soul.

We believe that the Spirit of God is upon us,

In darkness, and light, storms and stirrings,

In which God weaves with darkness and the “deep” to make life and love,

and calls us to protect all creation and life with carefulness, and to do all things with wisdom.

We believe Christ reveals the life of God, and how we can share in it,

By being fully human, embracing beauty and brokenness in life,

By seeking wholeness and the fulness of life for all,

Bearing the cost of suffering, and always keeping hope alive. 

We commit ourselves to so live our lives in God that we reflect the likeness of Christ,

See the image of God in all people, those like us and those different from us,

Love ourselves that we may love our neighbour as our self, and,

Always act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Inderjit Bhogal, 29 March 2020

NOTE: You can use the word “mercy” or “tenderly” in the final line, which ever works best for you.

This article can be downloaded for use here
All documents on this topic are located here

Be a Santuary to Yourself

Part of the Communion in Times of Coronavirus series of gentle reflections
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Inderjit Bhogal, 2020

I am beginning to think we are all in our Noah’s Ark in our own homes with our families (and pets if we have them), our sanctuaries.

“And there were other boats”

Mark 4:36

Life away from others is a daily reality to people who have been housebound for years. Religious communities have developed spiritualities that have required the need to “come away” for a while. We are familiar with the value of “retreat”.

Every household, every individual, in their own “cacoon” is a new place for us all, and requires us to come to ourselves, and imagine a new world.    

Noah and his wife Naamah were in the Ark, with their family, and the animals with them, when it rained for forty days and forty nights. They were in the stormy rain and turbulent waters of the flood which eventually did subside (Genesis 6:14-7:12). They did not have a garden they could take a walk in, or social media for entertainment and communication. The story gives us the beautiful image of the Dove with an Olive leaf in the beak as a sign of cessation of conflict (Genesis 7:11), and then the rainbow (Genesis 9:13), with a spectrum of colours in an arch, as a symbol of hope for all creation. I like the image of a rainbow, insisting that there are many colours, not just one. And it looks like a bigger roof providing a more inclusive shelter.    

The next Ark we come across in the Bible is the Ark as a “sanctuary” for God (Exodus 25:8) to symbolise God dwelling in the midst of people. This is image we have to hold in our mind when we read the words of John 1:14 “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, a development of the words of Exodus 25:8.

The Ark represents a sanctuary for its inhabitants. Noah’s Ark is a sanctuary for all those in a safe space with him.

This image grows into the Biblical vision that everyone will have their own Ark, a house in fact, with their own garden (see for example Isaiah 65:21), so that no one is without a roof over their head; and no one is afraid that their house will be destroyed or their livelihood plundered.

This ideal remains a dream that has not been achieved. History is littered with stories of exactly the opposite. Homes and gardens destroyed.

The shameful fact is that today there are 70 million refugees, a new all-time high, an unprecedented global situation. This includes 28 million people who are internally displaced, trapped in their own countries (of these 11 million are conflict related, and 17 million are disaster related. Disasters include storms, floods, landslides, droughts, wild fires and extreme temperatures). Their homes and gardens have been destroyed.

People who have lost their homes and the protection of their countries value sanctuary and safety expressed in welcome and hospitality and shelter. The global image that has been before us has been of refugees in boats in sea waters, and at border fences and walls, desperately seeking sanctuary. All people with names and families, and histories. There are heart breaking images of children whose lives are in danger, and many people in the water. A traumatic situation for anyone to be in.  

In Mark 4:35-39 is recorded the story of Jesus in a small boat with his disciples. They are caught in a storm. In this storm we read that there were “other boats” with him. There was not just one boat as in the Noah story. They were not all in the same boat. There were other boats, carrying other people, all in the same storm. They all went through the fears expressed by Jesus’ disciples.

Now, in the deep and choppy waters of the coronavirus, we are all seeking or taking sanctuary in homes and rooms and apartments. We all have fears and anxiety about the wellbeing and safety of ourselves, and our families.  Others are going through a similar situation to us. No one is immune to the virus, from rulers to the ruled, rich and poor, women and men, whatever our nationality or ethnicity. Our equality in our humanity, and frailty, and desire to be safe is clear.

The reality of our world is that there are those who have “homes” and many who do not. There are those with lovely gardens, and those without gardens. There are those for whom being in a confined environment will be difficult, and for others this will hold dangers of intimidation and abuse from oppressive others.

The rain stopped in the Noah story. Coronavirus will pass. But as we take sanctuary ourselves, we will keep in our hearts and minds all those in their own other sanctuaries now, with all the surrounding concerns. And we will not forget those who are without homes, or away from homes, and refugees who continue to be “the least important” internationally, and uphold them in our work and prayers. The poorest communities will be the hardest hit by all the circumstances surrounding coronavirus. We will maintain our solidarity with those who feel most excluded and vulnerable. I hope we will not allow enforced social distancing to lead to social division.

Sanctuary in our homes is bringing us to ourselves. We have time to reflect on ourselves, and how we are with others, and to explore our spirituality. In what ways are we individually a home and a garden to ourselves? What are the points at which we are a stranger to ourselves? Where does our deepest nourishment lie? What wells do we drink from?

I love the very first line of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy great pleasure”.

Rabindranath Tagore

Each one of us is immense. We grow even more in our relationships with others.

Acknowledge the gift and treasure you are. We are to love ourselves, if we are to love our neighbour and the stranger as ourselves, and in so doing to discover what it is to truly love God. Look after yourself. Your wellbeing is a gift to yourself and to others. Care for your body for it is the Temple, the Sanctuary of God.

This is what it is to be a sanctuary to yourself. Model sanctuary in yourself. Be a wholesome, calm, healing and hospitable presence. So:

Allow yourself space to be. Allow others space to be.

Be compassionate towards yourself. Be compassionate towards others.

Be forgiving to yourself. Be forgiving to others.

Do not be afraid. Help others to not be afraid.

Be safe and non-violent in your words and ways. Support such non-violence in others.

When you do this, you can better support others in being and building sanctuary.

Noah’s time in the Ark with his family concludes with God’s universal covenant embracing all people, plants, animals and the environment around him (Genesis 9:12).

The gift of coronavirus may be to call us back to the insight of this covenant and God’s call to human beings again to commit ourselves to each other and all creation, to imagine and build a rainbow future with each other, as the “oikumene”, the household of God, and not least in terms of an ecumenism embracing all faiths, economic equality, and ecological justice, modelling an over-arching sanctuary for all.   

Inderjit Bhogal

27 March 2020

This article can be downloaded for use here
All documents on this topic are located here

British 10km Again: All We Can (9th July 2017, London)

Hello supporters,

I hope you are enjoying the weather.  It’s tough on training!

Team Bhogal [Rachel Parkinson, Patrick Stonehewer, Liamarjit Bhogal and Inderjit Bhogal] will be joining the British 10km run in London. We are supporting All We Can, the Methodist relief and development charity responding in times of crisis, to humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters, conflict and political instability all over the world.

Please sponsor us if you can using the links below:

Our fundraising page:
https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/inderjitbhogal10km
Watch our progress and find out more information about the team, the charity and the event

Our Sponsorship form:
https://mydonate.bt.com/donation/start.html?participant=475733
A direct link to make a donation!! It couldn’t be easier.

Many Thanks

Inderjit