Rallying for refugees and the workings of the Spirit

By Savi Hensman
September 14, 2015

On Saturday 12 September, right across Europe, many thousands gathered and marched to welcome refugees and urge their governments to offer more support.

In London alone, between 50,000 and 100,000 people crowded the streets to show solidarity. At a football match in Arsenal's Emirates stadium, a large ‘Refugees welcome’ banner was unfurled, as had recently happened at other sports events.

For me, it was a deeply moving occasion. The sun shone on a diverse crowd, many of whom had travelled quite a distance to show concern, though there were rallies in several other UK cities too.

There were numerous banners and placards, many of them home-made, with slogans such as “We are one, there is no ‘other’”, “Happy to share” and “They’re not heavy, they’re my brothers and sisters” (a reference to a popular song).

At least in Britain, such a massive and heartfelt response to the plight of those fleeing war and persecution was astonishing, given the mood just a few weeks before. It was politically and, some might say, spiritually highly significant.

Earlier hostility to foreigners seeking to get into the UK, especially those not of white Western European descent, had been reaching alarming levels. It was stoked by politicians and sections of the media.

The desperate people arriving by land or sea had all been portrayed as economic 'migrants’ and this had become almost a dirty word, as if workers from abroad did not make a vital contribution to the economy. The horrors of the conflict engulfing much of the Middle East and Africa had been glossed over.

For many in the West with no personal experience of war or of being targeted for ethnic or religious ‘cleansing’, it was clearly hard to imagine others’ fear. Those in insecure jobs or housing had been encouraged to focus their frustrations on newcomers rather than exploitative and unjust systems at home.

But photographs, especially those of a young boy who had drowned, including earlier snaps in happier days, helped to personalise the situation. Suddenly those trying to get in were perceived as fellow-humans, rather than a menacing “swarm” (a word used by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron). Tellingly, many in the crowd were parents with young children.

It would be unhelpful to exaggerate – there is still widespread negativity about those seeking asylum and others from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Ongoing work will be needed to turn the outpouring of empathy into concerted action for change.

Nevertheless, the shift in mood is important, both offering hope to those needing refuge and making Britain – at least for a while – a wiser, more compassionate place.

Those who have worked towards achieving this change are of various faiths and none. Yet inevitably people will try to make sense of it within their own framework of experience and belief.

Many Christians believe that the Divine is present in the world, especially where people act lovingly rather than being motivated by greed and selfishness. The Holy Spirit, in this tradition, is perceived as being at work not only among those who explicitly follow Christ, but also where cruelty and injustice are overcome by good.

Some church leaders in Britain have been vocal in calling for a more just and generous response to refugees. A number of congregations have joined with non-churchgoers to offer solidarity and support, including to asylum-seekers who have been detained and those facing deportation despite being in danger.

However, quite clearly, what happened on Saturday was not part of organised religion, or led by ‘the church’ as an institution. At the same time, it very much felt to me as if God was present in a very powerful way.

When I refer to ‘the church’, I usually mean the ‘family’ of Christians which stretches across different places and times, which includes me and many others I know. I believe we are sometimes called to listen, learn and spot where God may already be at work around us.

When this happens, prayer, Bible-reading and worship can become more meaningful. While we need not hide our faith, it is important not to think that God somehow needs our permission to venture out into crowded streets and stadiums.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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