Posted in climate change, Poverty and Justice

for the love of …

An intriguing name for a day lobbying parliament about the dangers of climate change.

For the love of – the world? humanity? God? … well, it depends what you really love, doesn’t it? other options suggested on the website include, chocolate, heron, farming in Ethiopia, coral reefs, cheese and – picture of a young father with a baby  -‘my son’ (and there are lots more).

Human beings, very naturally, tend to love what’s close, what’s immediate. We love (most of us) our families and friends; we love places – if we’re lucky, the places where we live; we sometimes love our jobs. We don’t really love people we’ve never met, or places we’ve never been to. And not all of us connect the future lives of our children or grand-children with the sort of car we drive or how we heat our houses

So how can we love the world of the future, and the people of the future, enough to do something now which is difficult, costly and extremely inconvenient: like stopping burning carbon-based fuels? What can possibly give us the energy to make such a change? At the moment, the answer would appear to be, nothing very much. Politicians reckon, probably rightly, that if they were to implement the sorts of measures which would actually demonstrate that love for the distant future, they would lose their own jobs in the immediate future.

the for the love of … website tries to make the connections for almost anyone to something they really love – something worth doing something about. But it’s really like trying to get water to run uphill. Let me share with you the one response we got on twitter when the Diocese of Southwark shared this photo:

CHsdaHnWEAAEr9_.jpg-large

It went: ‘the good Lord stuck the Sun up there to keep us warm by another 2 degs get over it’. Not so easy for those who will lose their land, or their livelihood, or their life.

What can we do? Well, those of us who preach can preach – unashamedly. We can sign up to the Lambeth Declaration, launched today, and use it to provoke our churches into discussion and action. And we can encourage our MPs that they’re more likely to get our vote, not less, if they support meaningful action, soon.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the authorised version of Pope Francis’ encyclical. (Incidentally, has no one told those Republican Catholics that they’re meant to be obeying the Pope, not the other way round? Yes, even when he talks about things they don’t like.) I hope he brings this whole issue back to love: the love of God. In both directions: the love God shows in creating a world of such beauty and richness; and our love which should be shown in taking up the gift given to Adam and Eve – of being stewards of such a great gift. It’s not a job we’ve done very well up to now, but for the love of God …

Posted in Books, Church of England, Poverty and Justice

Parochial ministry: lessons from an unlikely teacher

Earlier this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the US and Canada, and rather to my surprise found myself learning from a true expert what parish ministry is all about. Churches in N America are all (stereotypically) gathered congregations of the like-minded and often the like-skinned – but amidst that there has been a return to the idea of “the parish” – driven not by the churches you might expect, but by a motley collection of Anabaptists, Presbyterians and – in particular for me – a Baptist minister.

Grandview Calvary Baptist Church doesn’t to UK ears sound like it’s going to be a place of radical hospitality, a rich and disciplined common life of prayer and service, and deep commitment to a local community in all its variety and diversity. I wasn’t expecting to see the Stations of the Cross either. But all of those things were there. I took the Skytrain over to what is now an increasingly trendy part of Vancouver, in the same way that Hackney is a trendy part of London. That is to say, there is an overlay of young professionals, but the majority of the people are poor and there is a great diversity of ethnicities and social groups. After fifteen years in Islington and then Stoke Newington, I felt right at home.

Tim Dickau has been the minister at GCBC since 1989. He describes the question that faced the church at the time he arrived this way:

We were at a crossroads that many churches at the end of Christendom have had to face. Would we continue on as a chaplaincy supporting the present members until their death? Or would we face this death, which after all is so entwined with the story of Jesus, and share in the larger mission of Christ by living out the gospel in our changing neighbourhood?

GCBC did face up to the death of Christendom, and it has found new life. And lest UK readers think “it’s OK for them, there are loads of Christians in N America” – this is an area which recorded 31% ‘no religion’ in the 1981 Census. I wonder what it’s up to now?

Tim took me for a walk around the neighbourhood. He knew pretty well everyone, and they knew him: it was like being with a parish priest in the CofE who really knows, loves and walks their patch. But for him and for his community, discovering a local, neighbourhood, ‘parish’ ministry has been a voyage of deliberate discovery and exploration. It has involved huge change and a commitment to keep going through significant downs as well as ups. It’s been no quick fix. Among other things, it has made me question the now-conventional wisdom that clergy ‘should’ move on after say, seven to ten years. I don’t think any of what I saw at GCBC would have taken root without Tim’s constancy of vision and commitment to that place.

As I left, Tim generously gave me a copy of his book Plunging into the Kingdom Way (from which the quotation above is taken). One of the joys of being on sabbatical is catching up on some of those books which accumulate unread; as I’ve been reading Tim’s book, I’ve been struck once again and even more, how he has a huge amount to teach us in the CofE about renewing our parish life in a post-Christendom setting. (I’ve also been reminded not to judge a book by its cover or title!)

Parishes, and all our structures around them, were constructed for a world in which the services of the church were a natural part of the life of the community. That just doesn’t apply any more in most places. In the parishes under my care, especially the suburban ones, Christendom church is now a living reality only for the older generation (though the part of my patch south of the M25 seems to be an exception). Last year’s Church Times survey found that parish clergy were, perhaps unsurprisingly, deeply committed to the parish system. So am I. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same in another generation as it is now. In fact, if it is to exist in another generation, it will have to be on the path to a radical transformation.

We need to be taught how to renew our parishes, and this word from someone who carries none of our baggage is I think hugely important. But don’t just take my word for it: read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.

Posted in Asylum, politics, Poverty and Justice

Sanctuary Summit 2014

Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.
Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.

It was a privilege to be there on Saturday – to be with several hundred others who were, or had been, or simply cared about the situation of asylum seekers in this country. Since I became involved with supporting and speaking for asylum seekers and refugees – and especially since taking on the chair of the Churches’ Refugee Network – I’ve got used to being made angry and depressed by the political struggle in this country by all the main parties to outflank each other in the hostility they show to those coming to the UK for help. Yes, there was still quite a bit of that. But there was also the inspiration of being together with many others who equally share a better vision of what the UK can be and can do – and a few who had come all the way from the Republic of Ireland as well. And maybe even more, there was the inspiration of those who had survived the system and come out the other side as resolute campaigners for the justice they did not experience.

I’m very glad to be a signatory to the declaration that came out of the day – you can see it here. Do go and see – and think about whether any of the group’s you are part of might sign it too. Not just campaign groups: I hope all sorts of organisations and groups could sign this. The five principles are these:

1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.

2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.

3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.

4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.

5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.

And in case you’re wondering, no – none of these are presently or fully in place for asylum seekers and refugees in this country. I think we can do better than this, because I believe as a country we are better than this. We need to let our politicians know that that’s what we want.

Posted in Asylum, Poverty and Justice

Hard hearted Britain

 

Refugees in northern Iraq

 

How much do people have to suffer before we will show mercy on them? Asylum is one of the most precious gifts that we have to offer – a place of safety for those who have nowhere else to go. We live in a country which is safe and wealthy; the vast majority of us believe that we do have an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But we seem to be drawing ever tighter lines in defining who might deserve our help. Anyone from outside the United Kingdom is no longer our concern.

The government resolutely refuses to answer questions about whether we might offer asylum to Iraqi minority communities who have been driven from their homes to avoid being murdered. Have we now come to the point where political parties cannot dare to offer a safe haven even to people so obviously in need? That would be yet another indictment of the race that Labour and the Conservatives have been conducting for decades, as to who can be the more hostile and intolerant to those who need (not want) to come to this country. Rather say nothing than say anything that might expose yourself to the accusation of ‘being soft’. Even if it means leaving people to die.

I am ashamed to be represented by a government which has so little moral conviction (and the opposition hasn’t demonstrated any more). But what can you expect from a government proclaiming its desire to support families, while refusing visas for elderly parents whose children are prepared to met all the costs of supporting them? Or demanding that people demonstrate a purely arbitrary level of income (it applies regardless of how much their spouse might earn, for instance) before their husband or wife can live with them in the UK?

This is all part of a huge moral cowardice, an inability to stand up for principles of basic human solidarity when they are unpopular. It is all part of the greatest ethical threat facing the United Kingdom, that we become a closed-minded, hard-hearted nation of misers, sitting on our precious freedoms and protecting them from all comers. On the end, it is a way of life which will backfire, because those freedoms will themselves become eroded. It is only when we stand up for those who are different from ourselves that we have any sense of what human dignity means. Without that, we lose our own sense of our own dignity and worth.

Once when I was doing a door-to-door collection for Christian Aid, someone refused to give on the grounds that ‘charity begins at home’. That is not just someone else’s opinion – it is a lie. True charity is love that is poured out to those far from us, those who are different from us. It is love that responds to the need of another human being, not our calculation of our own advantage. Charity comes home when it has drawn us out of ourselves. When will we rediscover that sort of charity as a nation?

Posted in Poverty and Justice

I was a stranger and you did not welcome me

I know it’s a bit long for a blog post, but I want to share the ‘Position Statement’ passed unanimously at the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, meeting at Sheffield on 5th April 2014. I’ve recently become Chair of the Network, and I’m privileged to be working alongside people who demonstrate concern for the most marginalised in our society – who do what Jesus will ask of us all, according to Matthew 25:31-46. For me these are not party political arguments. Firstly because none of the main political parties dare to stand against the climate of fear which they discern in this country. Secondly because the statements from the conference, though they relate to the law as it is, flow from Christian values, from a vision of the God-given dignity of all human beings. Enough – I could go on even longer. Please do read it – and share it.

This conference of the Churches’ Refugee Network of Britain and Ireland affirms the dignity and worth of all human beings as a fundamental principle of every civilised society. From this flows the right of every person to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, not only under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, but as a right recognised in civilisations from ancient times.

We also affirm what immigrants and refugees from many lands and of different faiths have, for centuries, contributed to the culture and achievement of the UK.  Immigration vitally enriches our national life, just as those going out from these islands have often contributed to the well-being of countries where they have worked or settled. Refugees and those who seek asylum are a special category of immigrant, but politicians’ discourse and media-led perceptions often obscure this, doing them further injustice.

We accept the need for reasonable border control and the Government’s responsibility for the well-being of all its citizens. Yet this conference believes that many provisions of the current Immigration Bill will not simply reinforce national borders but create damaging boundaries and divisions within national life, separating those who have civic entitlements from those who have not.  This breeds an unhealthy culture of mistrust and suspicion, undermining social cohesion and inevitably leads to increased social costs.

The conference affirms the biblical Christian and Jewish traditions of the importance of welcoming strangers and of offering special protection and provision towards aliens, even those ‘unlawfully’ present.

In particular, the conference registers its concerns about the following:

Detention

The levels and lengths of detention, both for adults and minors, are already unacceptable (and unnecessarily costly) and the Bill’s proposals threaten to make them more so. Indefinite detention should end. Those who have served their sentence should not continue to be detained.

Destitution and the need to permit paid work

A civilised society should allow no-one to become destitute. The refusal to allow those who have been waiting many months for a decision on their asylum status to obtain work to support themselves or their families is demeaning. It makes eventual integration more difficult, and will lead to health problems and to unnecessary NHS costs, whilst access to benefits is minimal and insufficient.

Restrictions on Legal Aid

Although asylum is expressly exempted from the restrictions now placed on legal aid, there has been a drastic decline in the number of good immigration lawyers, caused directly by Government changes to fees and contracting, with a consequent disincentive for new entrants to the legal profession to specialise in immigration law. This places asylum seekers at a great disadvantage in terms of access to professional legal advice. It also slows down the Courts, where judges increasingly have to exercise representatives’ functions such as cross examination, clarification and summarizing. We are seeing serious delays of hearing schedules extended not by weeks but by months. Slow justice eventually becomes injustice.

Outsourcing to private firms

The involvement of private firms in removals and deportation has led to injuries and occasional death due to improper restraints; the separation between the Home Office and such firms leads to a lack of accountability and an evasion of responsibility. Whilst it may marginally save costs, it is bad governance of a public function. Recent examples do not even justify a reduced cost argument; eg. the tagging scandal.


On the Immigration Bill

The welfare and safety of thousands of children who have been born or grown up here, and have no home elsewhere to which they can be returned, but whose parent(s) have been deported,  will be severely prejudiced, as will their legal claims. Likewise those young people who came as unaccompanied minors but who are now between 19 and 24, and in whose attempted deportation the UK Government often flouts the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alongside the new restrictions on legal aid and those proposed on judicial reviews, the range of grounds for appeal, and the opportunities for bail and to appeal, are dramatically reduced. Despite numerous attempts to improve administration, the decision-making process within the Home Office still leads to a high rate of successful appeals: Substituting an internal review system for an independent appeal mechanism is unlikely to produce adequate justice. Poor decision-making will be harder to challenge and correct.

Placing onerous obligations on landlords and staff in banks, clinics, surgeries and DVLA to scrutinise and police complex immigration documents will prejudice many people who are lawfully here as well as those ‘unlawfully’ here who have fled persecution or violence but may wait years for decisions on their asylum status and who under Human Rights legislation are entitled to legal protection.

While we would give no support to sham marriages, mistrust about all mixed relationships will be created and many genuinely seeking marriage will be caused stress and pain at a time which should be happy and filled with promise.  The right to a private and family life and relationships is as important to those ‘unlawfully’ here as to those who have full right to residence.

Family Migration

The income level of £18,600 set for bringing foreign-born spouses and/or children of British citizen to the UK is too high for some 48% of British people, including those British citizens who have married while working abroad. It does not reflect lower average incomes in parts of Britain outside London and the South-east, nor does it take into account significant differences in median incomes of British ethnic citizens, especially women. While this does not include families established by asylum seekers before their own arrival in the UK, it does impact on those refused asylum who are granted Indefinite Leave to Remain, and limits the right of those with status subsequently to marry someone from their home country.

The rules relating to Adult Dependent Relatives are harsh to the point of cruelty and should be eased.

Gathered for this conference, we commit ourselves to work for better welcome, care and justice for all who seek to find in the United Kingdom sanctuary from persecution and violence.

Posted in politics, Poverty and Justice

When is a prison not a prison?

A wing at Brook House Two answers come to mind, after this afternoon: ‘when you call it an Immigration Removal Centre instead ‘ or perhaps more importantly ‘when people are deprived of their freedom who haven’t committed a crime’. Today I’ve visited Brook House, an IRC built on the same pattern as a Category B prison. For all that the management are trying to make it feel a bit more relaxed, there’s only so much you can do with a building which has classic H block prison wings. The fact that the residents are locked into their rooms (cells) for twelve hours each night is a bit of a clue too. As one of the current detainees explained to me, passionately, one of the big differences between an IRC and a prison is this – in prison you know when you’re going to be released. Detention is indefinite, and sometimes very long – years, maybe. And, strangely, we’re all very happy about it – we meaning the freedom-loving British public. To repeat, these are not people who are being held for committing a crime. The way we treat the people who end up in IRCs is really only explicable (I think) as an example of scapegoating, in the way it’s explained by Rene Girard – a society unconsciously loads its own tensions onto a specific group, whose expulsion would restore peace and order. But because a rational analysis would soon demonstrate that this wasn’t actually true, the scapegoating has to remain unconscious. Its presence is revealed by the increasingly bizarre and unrealistic justifications which are urged for persecuting the selected group, which depart further and further from reality. Recognise that, anyone? Today I’ve been the guest of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I was also privileged to meet several people still going through the asylum system, and to see the dignity with which they deal with the humiliations our system loads on them. The GDWG provide support, and give hope to many people who otherwise would have no-one to befriend them. I am hugely impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the people I met. The staff and volunteers of GDWG demonstrate that scapegoating is not inevitable. Girard argues that Jesus’ resurrection ends that cycle; whether or not they think of themselves in that way, I saw today, among the despair of Brook House, also the resurrection hope of a new way of living.

Posted in Poverty and Justice

Ability and disability

As the next tranche of benefit cuts come into force, it seems to be more and more difficult for people to see the human stories which lie behind the headlines and instant opinions. I’m very glad to be able to share (with her permission) Valerie Lang’s reflections on the changing culture in which we live – and the way in which it is becoming more difficult for disabled people to enter the workplace, even as they are being hectored more and more to do so.

As a disabled person I found it very difficult to find work in the 1960s and ’70s, even though I had a lot going for me. Certainly in the ’60s rates of unemployment were much lower, I had a degree from the London School of Economics, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Librarianship. I also had employers and friends willing to recommend me to one another. Because of this help I was in fact never out of work until I retired in 1997.

Today the Government says that it wants more disabled people to go and find work. But does it?

It has reduced the availability of the Access to Work scheme, which paid for adaptations in the work place. Its “Bedroom tax” will force many disabled people out of their homes and localities. (Yes, Local Government can help them to stay where they are, but only for a short time.) Its press allies run numerous stories about benefits cheats and disabled people who don’t get out of bed, leading to a public perception that 7 out of 10 disabled people are cheating. This is a far cry from the DWP’s own statistics which show that fraudulent claims of Disability Living Allowance have been only 0.5%, a fact that the Government chooses to ignore.

Further, the private company Atos, contracted to assess who is fit for work apparently tells blind people who can find their way around their own homes, that this means that they are fit for work. This is in spite of a DWP survey finding that over 90% of employers saying that they would not employ a blind person. About 40% of disabled people who have contested Atos findings that they are fit for work have had their appeals upheld. Instead of radically changing the fit for work test, the Government has simply  stopped Legal Aid from being available for such appeals.

The Government seems to think that jobs grow on trees – to be picked at any time someone cares to go and look. In fact one can only get a job if an employer takes one on. Does the Government not realise, or does it just not care, that potential employers read the same stories about so called cheats and scroungers? What employer is going to pick the disabled so-called skiver when there is a whole queue of non-disabled applicants waiting?

I certainly would not have found work if I had faced the same barrage of anti-disability rhetoric in the media. It was difficult enough to persuade employers to look beyond my disability – which affected my speech as well as all my limbs. It is indeed possible for disabled people to hold down good jobs, but only if they are taken on, and given a proper chance. Before I retired I had become a Senior Research Officer, at the Civil Aviation Authority, but I very much fear that today’s disabled people will not get the chance to work that I had.

In fact it is my opinion that the Coalition Government, too afraid to deal with the Bankers’ part in the current economic debacle, would prefer to blame disabled people for almost all of the country’s economic woes – scapegoats in the traditional Biblical sense.

Valerie Lang, MBE, BSc(Econ.)