This will vary depending on context but if you are serving in an urban context, then the issue of immigration is likely to play a significant part in your ministry. What are the kinds of things you need to be aware of and thinking about?
First of all, I think it will help you to have a theology of race and a theology of religion. We want to know what God’s Word has to say about these things particularly when the challenges of racial tensions arise. Is desiring controls on immigration a sign of sinful selfishness -a failure to welcome the alien and stranger? Or is it an essential protection to a Christian culture? To what extent should we expect ethnic diversity in the new creation? Should we be endorsing or opposing #BlackLivesMatter? Do Muslims basically worship the same God as us? These are all questions that are likely to come up.
Some theological colleges provide teaching on this. Oak Hill Theological College included a second year course on Race and Religion as well as a Masters level “Theology of Religion” course when I studied there but these were options and so not every student took them up. Further, they were dependent upon having a lecturer with a particular interest in those subjects. I have attempted to give time to these subject areas on Faithroot.com and a substantial part of my Hope for the City: Urban Subversive Fulfilment series addresses issues around race and religion in multicultural cities. For a good, reformed theology of religions I’d recommend “For their rock is not as our rock: An Evangelical Theology of Religions” by Dan Strange.
Secondly, there are going to be pastoral issues arising out of people coming to the UK and seeking asylum or looking to get permanent residence and citizenship. Some asylum seekers will come here because they are fleeing persecution because they profess Christian faith but people can come for all kinds of reasons. It may be that their Government is tyrannical and oppressive, suppressing any political dissent but in many cases, the government may to all intents and purposes be democratic but people are still experiencing persecution. This may come through family, tribal or local political sources. For example, in several cases, we’ve supported asylum seekers who have fled gangs, drug cartels and such like who were unable to get protection and justice because of corruption and bribery.
It is helpful to know the law on such things because there is a lot of mythology about. For example, we often read about illegal asylum seekers in the media but there is really in fact no such thing. A person does not have to have a visa when arriving if they are asylum seekers but they should claim asylum as soon as possible. It is not a legal requirement that they must claim asylum in the first country they come to.
Those who claim asylum will often be processed first by being sent to dispersal centres and then being offered accommodation through the Home Office, usually owned and managed by as subcontractor such as Group 4. They will be given a minimal subsistence allowance. Their claim is considered by the Home Office and they are expected to submit evidence. Simply because they fail at first hearing does not mean that their case isn’t genuine. Appeals processes are available.
In our experience, one of the best ways of helping asylum seekers is not to try and take everything on yourself but to link them up with a good solicitor. There are plenty of solicitors and barristers working on immigration and asylum law (it’s important to remember the distinction between the two). However, they vary. Some will simply push the paperwork through. It’s better to find someone who immediately show that they are listening to the person’s story, believe them and will commit to understanding their case and advocate for them. Some will expect fees. It is better to stick with solicitors and barristers who only take legal aid cases. This is because to receive legal aid, the solicitor has to show a grater than 50% probability of success. In other words, they are not just there to collect the cash. They are only taking cases that they consider genuine.
As well as appeals processes, there is also the option of Judicial Review. It is often the case that this is the best hope for an asylum seeker who has lost a few appeals to go through this process as it focuses on ensuring that the law has been applied correctly in the process. Judicial Review in effect resets things to the start of the process to ensure that the person’s case is heard afresh without prejudice from the beginning.
You may well be asked to write letters in support of asylum seekers and potentially be called as a witness. The only time that your word has any authority as a witness to their claim is when it is based on a profession of Christian faith. It’s important to only witness to things you can be certain about. However, sometimes a letter can help as a character testimony and to indicate the needs that the person has for settled community life and support. Further, I think a willingness to write on behalf of the person is encouraging for them as they see that you care about them and are willing to advocate for them.
It is also important to be clear up front with asylum seekers about what you can and cannot promise them. I willingly meet with them and pray with them. I go to solicitors and court hearings with them. However, I also explain that I have no influence/authority with the Home Office. We also talk about how God sometimes takes us through suffering. So, we pray that their case will be met with justice and mercy. We pray that they do not have to return to persecution but we talk about how that may still be the outcome and so we pray earnestly that they will know God’s presence and peace in whatever they face.
Asylum seekers come with deep scars, physical and mental. Through torture and abuse they may have suffered severe injuries that will affect their health on a long-term basis. They are also very likely to have suffered from PTSD. An awareness of the medical impact on them and the kind of treatment, counselling and support they will need is important too.
It is also important to be alert to how people from within your church family, including you as a pastor/elder may be affected by walking with people who have suffered and continue to suffer. There is a form of vicarious PTSD. We also see people who become emotionally exhausted and crushed as they share in the pain of asylum seekers.
In my experience, the biggest thing a pastor needs to know is that asylum seekers can be a great blessing to the church. We can learn so much as we see brothers and sisters keep their trust in God and continue to seek to serve him even as they go through so much, even as they seem to be left with nothing. To see an asylum seeker open up their home or even plant a church is an incredible thing. There are few more moving things to hearing the voice of someone who has suffered much singing “All my life you have been faithful, all my life you have been so, so good.”
For other resources check out
Steve Kneale’s blog Building Jerusalem. Steve pastors a church with a high proportion of asylum seekers and refugees present.
Welcome Churches – A Christian charity helping churches to welcome and love refugees
Articles on Asylum here on Faithroot.com