By: Rev. David White
Rector of Carlow Union of Parishes
Welcome is one of those things we often take so much for granted that we don’t notice it. But we all know what it feels like not to be made welcome. Empty words matched with empty gestures make us uncomfortable, uneasy and unvalued. People of faith must always be people of welcome even when it makes us feel uneasy, a little scared or more than confused.
As someone whose faith was formed in the monastic tradition I have always taken it as a given that hospitality and welcome are both at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. St. Benedict in his Rule is clear that, ‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35).’ But this kind of welcome is not about giving us fuzzy feelings about being good people. It’s about really engaging with people different to ourselves and allowing their experience and perspective challenge ours. When we welcome Christ into our lives nothing stays the same. Our vision of ourselves in the world is deepened and broadened. We become better versions of ourselves. We are transformed. Therefore, we are challenged to welcome the stranger as Christ into our lives and to offer them hospitality in its most radical manifestation.
Welcome and hospitality comes in many forms. This year for our Harvest Thanksgiving service we invited Philip McKinley, Chaplain at DCU’s Interfaith Centre, to give the address on this theme especially in relation to asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. For many years the parish has had a connection with the Rohingya community. Joy Sea right first facilitated their use of the Church of Ireland Community House as they used our kitchen for the development of a cookbook publication project. The plight of the Rohingya is much in the news now. But they have been among us in Carlow for many years now and have taken the town to their heart. Recently again we were able to offer them hospitality around the time of International Rohingya Day as they used our space for cooking and for making a film documentary.
The Rohingya Community in Carlow came in 2009 after they were resettled from refugee camps in Bangladesh by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The refugees were part of the 250,000 Rohingya who fled their native Burma (Myanmar) in 1991/2 during the Burmese military operation known as Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean Nation. In another systematic state-sanctioned operation in August 2017, 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh causing a disintegration and displacement of a community. The ‘clearance operations’ constituted a human rights catastrophe and have been described by the UN as ‘textbook genocide’.
Philip McKinley’s address drew on the text in Leviticus, ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.’ (19.9-10) He said that, ‘In Biblical times and throughout much of Church history, migrants and refugees were offered ‘sanctuary’. It is an ancient concept which is finding renewed traction across wider civil society in Europe and United States, especially in opposition to exclusive and protectionist political movements. At its root ‘sanctuary’ has strong Harvest themes, to ‘share the edges of your field…with the foreigner’.
He went on to speak about ‘Places of Sanctuary Ireland’ which is a network of groups in towns, cities and local communities which share the objectives of promoting the integration, inclusion and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, by encouraging every sector of society to make a practical commitment to becoming places of welcome and safety. They work through community groups, schools and colleges, churches, local councils, businesses and other organisations in the belief that these newcomers have a huge amount to offer Irish society.
At the end of the service, Noor Hasina gave an address on behalf of the Rohingya community which was responded to with loud applause. The service was attended by a wide range of interested parties including Carlow County Council, Carlow College, IT Carlow, St. Catherine’s Community Services Centre, Kilkenny & Carlow Education and Training Board, The Carlow County Development Partnership, the Inter Agency Committee for Resettlement, Tusla, HSE, and the Gardai.
As a Diocese and as individual parishes I wonder is it now time to start thinking deeply about what is our ‘field’ and how can we share ‘sanctuary’ with those coming to live amongst us? Could a network of ‘Churches of Sanctuary’ be formed across the wide geography of our Diocese? The Christian ethical imperative of welcome and hospitality is clear and unequivocal. The task is to discern what is the most appropriate application in each of our contexts. But this should not allow us to procrastinate. Living communities of faith must be ones where everyone is included and where difference of every hue is celebrated.
This article was written for the Diocesan Magazine.