This posting is about compassion, specifically toward the homeless and sanctuary (asylum) seekers and about agendas to deal with such people, whether or not motivated by compassion. During the three weeks I was out of the country and away from the media and the Internet, I spent a lot of time reflecting on these issues which are more related than one might think. Before I left the UK, three rough sleeper friends had died in the few weeks leading up to my departure. I was still in shock. I knew and worked with each person, had I believe a good rapport with all of them, and their deaths were untimely, avoidable and tragic. If for no other reason than respecting the memory of Jeff, Gary and Colin, I was resolved to carry on my work among vulnerable people, motivated as far as I could be by compassion and wanting to make a difference.
Also just prior to my leaving, news concerning the refugee camp in Calais and the half a million displaced persons living in fear and destitution, as a result of conflict in the Middle East, was never far from the news headlines. David Cameron’s “stopping the swarms coming in” rhetoric and the government having earlier been shamed into improving search and rescue operations for people seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea by boat for a better life in Europe and then getting into difficulties, all suggested that helping such people was not high up on the government list of priorities. As I considered this and the homeless situation, I found myself meditating on the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, who stated: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” and the parable of the Good Samaritan. This declares that we are required to love our neighbor, that neighbor can be anyone including the most unlikely person, and love is demonstrated by the Good Samaritan doing everything that was in his power to help the one who had been mugged and abandoned along the Jericho road.
When it comes to agendas, when I did return to the UK it became quite apparent that, when it comes to helping the homeless, different people / groups, often doing good work and meeting real needs, had different approaches, and some of the comments on social media suggested there had been a lot of discord between them, and how much ego, pride and lack of sensitivity and decorum features, as well as compassion fatigue, complacency and lack of courage, all of which is a sad distraction given the needs. It is not my intention to discuss individual cases as that is not helpful and we need to concentrate on what we do and do what we can as best we can, irrespective of the actions and opinions of others. Not only is there the question of how best to respond to the needs, there is the interesting conundrum of agendas. My reading of Jeremiah is we all have agendas and none of us are 100% pure. Wisdom requires us to be aware that not everyone shares our aims and objectives and the best we can do is to find common ground and work toward the equivalent end of that recounted in the story of the Good Samaritan, mindful there is invariably a bigger picture that often we don’t get to see. As far as local homelessness is concerned, the needs and opportunities before going away remain and the challenge for me / us is deciding what my / our part is in meeting those needs.
What appeared to have changed is the government approach to accepting asylum seekers. I have no doubt the righteous indignation expressed by many was instrumental in these changes but my Jeremiah mentality makes me skeptical. Who can forget the image of the dead baby washed up on shore as a result of yet another failed attempt to escape by sea? I confess I was pleasantly surprised government had changed their approach by accepting their “quota” of asylum seekers. The devil is of course in the detail but this represents an opportunity to show compassion. There are detractors of course and questions like how we can help others when we can’t help our own, the added strains on already stretched services, the concerns over an islamification threat (many of the refugees are Muslims), a feeling that this should be someone else’s problem are just some of the issues and on the other side the possibility of civil disobedience given what we have seen in the annals of history when no action or inaction took place, all these questions need to be understood and responded to. How the program gets rolled out, including the response by local councils, is one of the unanswered question and things are changing all the time, yet there is yet another opportunity to help to meet the needs of these people.
One of the bright lights in this whole business is the amount of good will being generated within faith and other community groups. Yesterday, I attended a meeting among some of the folk in my own area who want to do something and we begun to formulate a strategy as to how to respond to the need. Something that has been shown to work in other areas is local families hosting sanctuary seekers in their own homes and thereby relieving some of the pressure on public services and housing. It is a matter of watch this space but one thing we cannot do is ignore there is a desperate need out there and to do nothing is equivalent to doing what the priest and Levite did in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – pass by on the other side. What the parable teaches is these folks, from lands afar, are our neighbours and we are to love them, not by mere words but by life saving, hope giving actions. I do have an agenda and it relates in part to my own Christian faith that governs all what I do and informs my understanding of what the Almighty requires of us. I am also aware of my own shortcomings and that there are many that serve better than I, but mistakes and big picture questions aside, and limitations as to what we can do given the enormous needs (the significance of throwing a single starfish back into the sea and all that), the question of how are we to love our neighbor who is not “one of us” has to be at the heart of how we respond to those needs.
PS: I have just been reading an article titled: “Southend to take in 10 Syrian refugees” followed by readers comments, numbering over 100, in the Southend Echo (19/09/15). While I expected a wide range of opinions, I was surprised that the majority opinion seemed to be strongly against such a move, for reasons including those given above. While it does not alter my opinion as to what is needed nor my own response, it does seem to accentuate the need to win over hearts and minds while at the same time doing what is right.