During Refugee Week, at the end of June, I visited St Aidan’s church in Harehills, where the ‘Seeing Asylum’ ‘photo-story’ by Maria De Angelis and Jeremy Abrahams was on display. (If you haven’t been able to view it yourself- or if you think YOUR church might host it then do get in touch with the folk at LCI, for a copy of the booklet giving the images, and information about how to host it).
The following day the church was set to celebrate Sanctuary Sunday, where a special focus fell on the concept of having access to a home, to peace and security. Having seen ‘Seeing Asylum’ when it was first available, in the former LCI premises, it was interesting to revisit it in an ecclesiastical setting – and on a day when the church was very active in its dual role of providing physical sustenance alongside the spiritual nourishment you might take for granted in a church. Inderjit Bhogal’s publication Hospitality and Sanctuary for All was available alongside the exhibition, and I was struck that it opened with lines from Matthew 25 (verse 35: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’). This has long been one of my go-to texts for how to live in harmony and justice with others. Inderjit mentions that a significant symbol of hospitality is the table (whether a physical wooden one at which you might sit on chairs, or a cloth spread on the floor, reminiscent of Acts 10.11, and the al fresco feeding of the five thousand). This metaphor of sharing a meal occurs throughout the Christian narrative. Of course, the central liturgical action for many Christians is the Eucharist, the meal of thanks and praise in which God’s ultimate ‘feeding’ of his chosen ones with his Son is commemorated and enacted.
As a poet, I am a bit obsessed with symbols and metaphors. On this visit I kept returning to the image of the good shepherd, who cares for the flock which is entrusted to them, finding good pasture, and keeping predators at bay with safe entrances to the sheepfold. I was welcomed by the very wonderful Mother Andi, the parish priest, who as we chatted greeted many of the visitors by name, as they queued for food distributed by volunteers at the back of the church, this morning in its guise as a food bank. She explained how the incorporation of the food bank into the outreach and ministry of the church had evolved, and the fruitful collaborations the church has grown with PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers), HELP (Harehills English Language Project) and other local organisations who were enacting the injunctions of Matthew 25 to care for ‘the least of those.’ As so often, a piece of music came to mind – in this case the beautiful setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams of Anglican poet and priest George Herbert’s tender poem ‘Love bade me Welcome:’ it celebrates the welcome afforded to all in the eucharist. Mother Andi then took me into the side chapel, where the blessed bread of the sacrament is reserved. The chapel was piled high with crates of food, to replenish the food bank supplies. Here is my response to that encounter.
Feed my Lambs
Here is a shepherd who greets by name
these sheep who are now in diaspora,
wrenched from their hefted patch,
their fleeces waterlogged and ragged.
She gathers them from the tower blocks
and back-to-backs, offers the embrace of sanctuary,
and opens doors to breach the language barrier.
The aumbry needs no guiding light,
For Christ is here, in the mouths of the hungry
who are fed, whose tongues declare his praise,
whose hearts rekindle a flicker of hope.