It's not every day that I get emails telling me about a new mass migration movement to the UK that no one knew about! Yet, that is what happened in autumn 2020. This email said that under a scheme yet to be announced by the UK government, hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong were going to be offered a new visa to come to the UK. I couldn't quite believe what I was reading.
We founded Welcome Churches to help churches welcome people seeking asylum in the UK, a group that generally has not historically been welcomed into the country with open arms. So, to get an email which said the UK government was about to open the gates to hundreds of thousands of people from one country, surely not?
It was indeed true. The UK government was about to announce that they recognised some responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, because of the UK's historic links there. Subsequently, in January 2021, the British Nationals Overseas (BNO) visa route was opened and people from Hong Kong who had lived there before 1997, and could fund themselves in the UK for at least 6 months, were welcome to apply. It is estimated that to date over 100,000 people have already applied for the visa and relocated to the UK.
Wow! What a transformation that could bring to life in the UK - new cultures, understandings, perspectives on life, which could teach us so much. And what an opportunity for the Church.
I passionately believe that the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger should be at the centre of every church community. The UK has always been a diverse nation, and it is now the norm across communities and not just inner cities. Today, people can move between continents in a day, so we need to get used to meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds and have a culture of welcome.
For people living in the UK in 2022, in many ways God is bringing the nations to us. What an opportunity for us to see God's intention for his Church, to be full of every tribe and tongue celebrating and worshipping him together.
Let's be honest though, for many of us, a 'welcome' is an overenthusiastic smile to anyone who has chosen to walk through our church doors. The idea of trying to welcome someone who may not speak the same language as me might be a little daunting. But it's actually a really simple thing that any of us can do. It may take some guts, but when those just arrived from overseas receive a welcome that shows you've gone out of your way, it means so much.
We believe that a good welcome is intentional and proactive. You need to want to welcome someone to be a part of your community. It won't happen by accident! Here are a few tips on an 'over and above welcome':
Invite them along
One easy way to establish connection for someone who has just arrived in your local community is to invite them to join in! What community activities could you invite your new friend along to? Who else could you introduce them to so that they have a better chance of making real friendships and find a place to belong. Trying to include new people in your daily lives and to join in with activities you are already part of, is the easiest way of including a new person in community life.
Let's be honest, welcoming someone from a different country and culture is inevitably going to have some awkward moments, and you'll probably sit in silence at least once or twice! That's ok, the main thing is that you are present, rather than to have a full conversation. You need to be prepared to be patient, to take time to explain things to your new neighbours that local people who are familiar with British culture would probably already know.
One of the best things about welcoming new people is when we make space for mutual hospitality. Many people will also want to contribute to the community, as well as receive. They may want you to visit them in their home, as well as visiting you in yours. This is an important way we ensure people's dignity and respect. We want to learn about each other, find out what we have in common and understand our differences. Some of our new friends will also share our Christian faith and be looking for a church community to join in with. Others may not, and we always want to make sure we respect our new friend's culture and religion, which may be different to our own. We will always look to build on what we have in common, particularly if they have a faith different to ours.
Run a Welcome Course
This year, UKHK, a project of Welcome Churches, has launched the 'Welcome Course', specifically to help churches and communities welcome new arrivals from Hong Kong. The Welcome Course discusses key aspects of UK life including: British Culture, making friends in the UK, wellbeing, problem solving and citizenship. It provides easy ways to have discussions with your new friends on these issues, and space for them to ask questions they may have on UK life too. The course can be run face-to-face or online, with an easy-to-use bespoke online platform to help you through the technical practicalities too, just press go!
If every individual really welcomed and integrated people into our local churches and communities, we could demonstrate on a national level a culture of welcoming the stranger.
Visit UKHK.org for more details and enjoy meeting lots of new friends who are arriving in your community.
Emily Shepherd is Joint CEO of Welcome Churches. Having cofounded Welcome Churches with Karina Martin in 2018, Emily has a wealth of experience in welcoming many asylum seekers and pioneered the 'Welcome Boxes' project with her local church. Emily is passionate about seeing the UK Church being at the forefront of welcoming refugees. She has an MA in Conflict, Development and Security where she specialised in European citizens' responsibilities to refugees.