by Rachael Bee
I have been working with asylum seekers and refugees for 12 years. In that time I have witnessed much joy but also walked a journey of pain, poverty and discouragement alongside brothers and sisters caught in a system that can be inhumane and hostile. Reflecting recently on these 12 years, I see the main calling of this ‘journeying alongside’ is to be an encourager! Through that ministry of encouragement, God has drawn many to faith in Him.
Barnabas – Son of Encouragement
We first hear of Barnabas selling a field and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. His name was Joseph, a Cypriot, but the apostles gave him a new name: Barnabas, which means son of encouragement (Ac. 4:36). We then see him sent out by the apostles to support the ministry of the new church at Antioch, a church among the Gentiles (Ac. 11:19-26). Barnabas, true to his new name, encouraged the church then went to Tarsus and encouraged Paul to join him. They stayed for a year, teaching and encouraging, and many turned to the Lord and were saved. So how can we be ‘Barnabas’ in our communities?
Journeying Alongside Asylum Seekers
I first got involved in working with asylum seekers whose applications had been refused in 2007, having become interested through volunteering with international students. At that time I was a member at Ebenezer Evangelical Church in Bristol. We supported international students through a weekly Globe Cafe. One day, an unaccompanied asylum seeker from Afghanistan came to our cafe. He was 17 but the Home Office had decided he was older and he was at risk of losing his accommodation. When he was evicted we supported him by arranging accommodation with a family from the church. We accompanied him to court, with Adrian Reed acting as a Mackenzie friend. This young man, who remained in the UK until he was removed back to Afghanistan in 2009, inspired me to get involved. It was unsafe for him to return and he fled Afghanistan immediately as he was targeted again, and shot when he returned to his family. Praise God, he has now been recognised as a refugee in Italy.
In 2008, I co-founded a charity called Bristol Hospitality Network (BHN), which was set up to link households that have spare rooms with asylum seekers experiencing destitution. Our Christian household was one of the first three in the BHN scheme. Since then, I have hosted 47 asylum seekers for an average of 18 months. At times, the house has been very full. This has been possible through creating a Christian community with my neighbours. We’ve knocked down the walls in the gardens and share life together with regular prayer and meals. Since 2012, we have had a weekly discipleship group for Muslim Background Believers (MBBs).
Most asylum seekers and refugees have a few things in common:
- they are far from home and never feel they quite belong here
- they experience poverty and a precarious existence under the threat of removal
- they long to be part of a family that loves them
- they live with a huge burden of loss: of family, role, status, wealth and confidence
- they live in the shadows in society, unable to take their place confidently, undocumented, without the benefits of citizenship, and at the sharp end of a hostile environment.
Our Christian response to these needs is to make them feel welcome, freely give accommodation and financial, emotional and advocacy support, and walk with them through the challenges of making a new life. We can invite them to join the family of believers and teach them, by word and action, that as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven they can have a confidence that comes from trusting Jesus. I am convinced that offering this ministry of encouragement through opening our home and family of believers to MBBs, and also to asylum seekers who are Muslim and not yet seeking, is part of our calling.
Having convinced myself that this calling was inconsistent with marriage and a family, I was surprised when God provided both in a wonderful way. Peter is a man of deep faith. We got married at Easter 2019 and have a baby boy called Daniel. We gave him a name that is well known by Persian, Kurdish and Muslim people. God is truly good to us!
Since 2012, we have had a weekly discipleship group for Muslim Background Believers (MBBs).
Discipling New MBBs
The majority of our guests are Muslim and a number of them have come to faith in Christ. It has been straightforward to share faith initially. All are thankful for the support they receive. They ask why we want to help them, which is a great conversation starter! Many are from Iran and associate Islam with negative experiences at the hands of the Islamic Republic. Many faith-sharing conversations have been started by other members of the household who speak the same language. These brothers are new to faith themselves and alight with the Spirit. They are willing and captivating witnesses to the hope of the gospel. Often, we are asked to answer more complex questions such as: ‘Why does God allow suffering? Why doesn’t He just sort the world out now?’ or ‘If we are saved by grace, why should we behave well at all?’ The answers often come out over many conversations and are accepted as a new believer journeys in the way of Christ. I used to think that such questions were the main barrier to belief; however, I have started to see that the faith journey is in stages.
Belonging to a New Family
The first stage seems to be the longing to belong. Being a part of our unusual household has often started conversations around why our faith leads us to open our home. Belonging among us has opened the door to the message of Jesus.
A New Identity
Walking in the way of Jesus offers asylum-seeking MBBs a new identity. It is a way to understand their new normal. They may not have a clear understanding of the gospel yet, but they know there is a citizenship that comes through faith, not the Home Office, and seek the certainty of this against a backdrop of hostility in the rest of their experience in the UK.
Desire for Newness of Life
We ask asylum-seeking MBBs to attend six months of discipleship teaching once they have decided to be baptised. This process is so exciting to be a part of. We recently baptised three Iraqi Kurdish MBBs. Through the baptism training programme we saw how God met with them, often in dreams and visions, and encouraged them in the way of Christ. They all confessed Jesus as Lord! Being in a small group, where we studied the Bible with a view to them understanding more about the way of Christ and where all questions were acceptable, was an important part of their journey of faith. Baptism showed that they identified with Christ and irrevocably wanted to follow Him.
A Renewed Solidity to Faith
Most MBBs go through a period of discouragement or testing and many appear to drift in this time. I am convinced that this is when we most need to be Barnabas to our brothers and sisters. It might look like they are leaving but I think they are partly testing us as the family of believers, rather like a teenager does in a family! Although we may feel discouraged, we need to follow up consistently with people, remain close and reiterate all the encouragement we have given in the past. Seeing them through doubt to the deeper joys of a faith that has stood the test is the greater calling of those of us engaged in this work. Perhaps you too can be a Barnabas, a ‘son of encouragement’, among asylum seekers?
- that God will lead us to those we can encourage in our own lives
- that asylum-seeking and refugee MBBs will get through the period of doubt and testing, and deeply commit to following Jesus
- that our churches will be places of welcome where our brothers and sisters can belong to a new family.