Why we need Refugee Week

published on 20 Jun 2019

Nick Coke

Why we need Refugee Week, by Major Nick Coke

This week is Refugee Week – an annual programme of events highlighting the contribution refugees make to UK communities, and countering negative and misleading narratives about those seeking sanctuary.

It wasn’t that long ago I received a stark reminder of why such a week is necessary.

‘NICK COKE IS A RACE TRAITOR’. There before my eyes was a notice stuck to a lamppost. Six words in large, bold capital letters shouting out on a white background - the word ‘RACE’ enlarged for extra emphasis. Further on up the street I could see another, fixed to a pillar at the entrance to the supermarket carpark. I drove on, got out of the car and ripped it down. Apparently there had been more up and down the high street near to the church where I was shortly to speak about the life-changing work we do with vulnerable refugees. Early arrivals had spotted and removed most of them, except as I drove away at the end of the evening I caught sight of another further on up the road. It was late, I was tired and wanted to go home, I drove on.

Why would someone do this? Was it because of my billing on the church’s publicity as the national Refugee Response Co-ordinator for The Salvation Army, and a ‘supporter of refugees’? In truth I found it pretty shocking to be named and targeted in this way. It’s never happened before, I’m not convinced it’ll happen again – but it would be foolish to pretend that it doesn’t reveal something disturbing about the precarious times in which we live.

We talk about a ‘refugee crisis’ but it seems to me that the crisis is as much about our own hearts and minds as it is anything else.

As a Christian leader, I like to think that my heart and mind – my body and soul even – is primarily shaped by the Jesus narrative. At least that’s what I strive for. When it comes to matters of welcoming outsiders, making space at the table and crossing boundaries, Jesus begins and ends with love. And as for ‘race traitor’, it’s the sort of label that Jesus said would come to those who followed him.

One thing I can say for sure this Refugee Week, is I’ve never been prouder to be a part of The Salvation Army. I have the privilege of witnessing first-hand how, up and down the country, members, employees and volunteers are welcoming refugees the Jesus way. In our Keighley church the motto for their weekly lunch for asylum seekers is ‘there is always space for one more’.

In Bootle, the officer Captain Annette Booth talks animatedly about how their English classes for refugees have created a ‘wonderful community of rich blessings’. In East London, one church member who is seeking refugee status is bravely leading the campaign to ‘Lift the Ban’ on work for asylum seekers.

And then there is a growing number of Salvation Army churches becoming Community Sponsors, led by tireless volunteers building teams to resettle vulnerable Syrian refugees from the most desperate of circumstances. There’s much, much more besides - too much to mention here.

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As I have travelled the country and listened to colleagues I have heard a refrain. Almost without exception the same views expressed as if an echo of the person before. It goes something like this:

‘We thought it was us doing the helping, but it turned out to be the refugees who helped us. We have been changed for the better.’ It appears, then, that Jesus really was onto something – practising radical hospitality has the power to transform us for the good. Such action dismantles the self-made borders in our hearts and minds.  

With this in mind I wonder again about being a so called ‘race traitor’. Perhaps it’s not an insult after all, but a badge to wear with pride.

You can read more about The Salvation Army’s work with refugees through a special series of blogs published this week on Matchfactory.org