A couple of months ago, I hosted an evening about community sponsorship of refugees in my diocese. During the course of promoting the event, a member of my staff was contacted by a Syrian who had previously been resettled locally. He had made contact to let us know that not only would he be attending but that he would be happy to assist if we needed any help at all with the organisation of the event. The welcome he had received made him passionate about offering welcome to others.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the people of Israel are reminded that they have been welcomed by God and so too they must welcome others. In Exodus, the Israelites are instructed: 'Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.'
This thread continues into the New Testament. Giving us a picture of the final judgment, Matthew 25 describes Jesus identifying our treatment of him with our treatment of the 'stranger'. As an infant Jesus himself became a refugee with his father and mother. Jesus' very dislocation from heaven was so that he might live among us, be crucified and resurrected so that we might be welcomed into God's presence.
It is as those who know what it is to be welcomed that we should applaud the extension of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for those fleeing the Syrian conflict, announced this week by the Government. People from a range of nationalities have had to flee the conflict in Syria. The announcement recognises that reality and enables us to welcome many more of those who need our welcome.
This announcement also offers some hope that the refugee crisis will not be neglected during the course of this parliament. Many of us feared that the demands of the Brexit negotiations would crowd out all other issues from public debate. Instead, we should seize the opportunity that this moment in history to reflect on what kind of country we want to be.
Earlier this year I was part of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees inquiry, 'Refugees Welcome?' Foremost among the inquiry's recommendations was the creation of a national integration strategy for refugees arriving into Britain, and a Minister for Refugees to oversee its implementation. We must work to ensure that these and other concrete steps can be taken to make sure that the Britain at the end of the Brexit process and beyond is more – not less – compassionate than we are now.
The Church's role, however, does not simply consist of holding our elected officials to account, as important as this is. We need to play our part in making these values a reality too. The expansion of the scope of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme also means the expansion of work in which many churches are already involved. Across the country as refugees (from many backgrounds) are resettled churches are taking part in offering welcome.
The extension of the scheme also offers a growing opportunity for a newer initiative that many churches are already beginning to take part in.
Community Sponsorship enables individual churches and community groups to lead the welcome of a refugee family, with support from government and other specialists. It has already proven a life-changing experience for the number of communities that have led the way. Nearly everyone I meet who has been involved in the process has remarked on how much laughter there has been since the families arrived. It is also the beginning of an answer to how we build the capacity to welcome more refugees. The Canadian scheme on which Community Sponsorship is based has welcomed 288,000 refugees over the last 40 years.
Community Sponsorship is a serious undertaking. And so it should be: we need to make sure that families receive quality care and are able to integrate. To make sure that as many Anglican churches can take advantage of the opportunity, the Church of England has just appointed a national co-ordinator, Nadine Daniel, to help churches through the application process and once the family has arrived. Caritas, Church Response For Refugees and Citizens UK have all appointed staff to support churches and others become sponsors.
In his study of Psalm 119, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: 'There is a very godless homesickness for the other world that prevents us from finding our home at all. I shall be a stranger with all that that involves. I shall not refuse to put my heart into the tasks, the pains, and the joys of earth.'
In 2017, real religion is not escapism but an attending to the 'tasks and pains' of earth. The plight of displaced people is a conspicuous pain and an urgent task. People of faith know what it is to be an outsider, not least the followers of the outcast Christ. Then not least among the 'joys of earth' is to welcome and see the faces of refugees who have found safety and new hope.
Rt Rev Paul Butler is Bishop of Durham.