Invitation to Mission in Britain US Delegation

12th July 2016 - by Ellen Teague

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Extracts from the blogs of 10 Columban co-workers and supporters from the US who visited Britain 3-10 July 2016. They were based at St. Columbans in Solihull.



Monday 4 July
Joshua Lopez
(Joshua is from El Paso, Texas)

“Anonymous Christians” was the term theologian David Mcloughlin used to begin a talk on interfaith relationships. Quoting Karl Rahner, David continued with an anecdote where the Dalai Lama, a bit skeptic of the idea, has said he would accept the idea of an anonymous Christian if a Christian could accept being an anonymous Buddhist.
This story resonated with me throughout the day, when our US delegation met a group of bright children at the English Martyrs Catholic primary school, toured one of Europe’s largest Sunni mosques, and listened to a group of empowered and faithful Muslim women at a Shia mosque. Upon walking into the Sunni mosque, I felt a stirring in my heart, the same kind of stirring that I feel when I enter my home parish of St. Mark’s: a feeling of welcome, love, and holiness. Visit to a mosque
In my heart, I heard the little voices of the children from English Martyrs School, who, in response to the question: “How should you be with your other brothers and sisters of other faiths?” responded with: “Show respect!”
The most powerful experience I had yesterday was listening to the women of the Muslim community. One in particular said something I will never forget. She exclaimed boldly, with love and confidence in her faith, that her faith liberates her, and without it she is lost. In her own faith, she finds what I find: freedom and salvation. It is in this sense that I fully understand the meaning of anonymous Christian. And, in return, I am more than happy to be seen as an anonymous Muslim in her eyes. But after yesterday, we are no longer anonymous to each other. We are brothers and sisters in our One God.


Tuesday 5 July
Fr Bob Mosher
(Columban Bob Mosher is based in El Paso at the Columban Mission Center, which engages with US/Mexico border issues – poverty, migration and human rights.)

Refugees and asylum-seekers in Birmingham have people who reach out to them, and can count on faith communities to extend a helping hand, in many instances. Today we visited three facilities that open their doors to those who have made the difficult decision to flee their countries. We split our delegation into different groups—two to visit support centers for women, a third a drop-in facility that caters to both men and women, and offers food, clothing, classes and effective experiences of solidarity.
Jen and Claudia, of our U.S. visitors, joined our U.K. Columban lay missioner (from Chile) Nathalie, who has lived in Britain with her husband and children for the past 14 years, to stop in at the Stepping Stone Family Center for the morning, and talk to refugee women involved in the Bethel Doula Project, for mothers and their children. The project aims to advocate and provide moral support for expectant mothers.
Rebecca and Gloria were guided by J.J. Enterina, local lay missioner from the Philippines, as they saw David Grogan again (from last night’s presentation at the Fourth of July party), and met another four US citizens who work with him at Christ Church’s program for accompanying refugees of many faiths. After conversing at length with the program staffers, they had a good look around at the local environment.
Josh, Joe, Alex, Mark and Father Bob joined Gertrudes, another Filipina lay missioner in the U.K., to tour and help out at St. Chad’s Sanctuary, where Ger has engaged in volunteer work almost since its beginning, six years ago. The Center is named after the patron saint of Birmingham, who lived in the seventh century.
All three groups gathered later for lunch and sharing at Fatima House, which will soon open its doors to single women without children who are in the condition known technically as “destitute asylum seekers”, and who are often denied U.K. government support, since their asylum petitions have been officially rejected, but they have not been deported from the nation – a humanitarian predicament that social activists are trying to remedy.
Our two Chilean lay missioners in the U.K., Nathalie and her husband Mauricio, proposed using an empty presbytery, or rectory, of a Catholic parish in the city as a facility for this most vulnerable group of refugees, as a response to the request from Pope Francis last year for all dioceses and congregations to provide shelter for refugees and their families. The archbishop and some priests of Birmingham supported their idea, and the rectory of St. Anne’s parish then became available. Its transformation into a shelter for nine female asylum seekers is nearly complete, after about eight months of hard work.
The delegation members who went to St. Chad’s Sanctuary in the morning spoke to the group gathered in Fatima House of how they toured the facility and helped carry bags of donated clothing from the basement to the third floor. They also met Sister Margaret, the facility’s founder and director, and a Syrian refugee who recounted his harrowing journey from his bombed-out apartment in Damascus through a capsized-boat experience between Turkey and Greece, and how he wound up at Heathrow Airport in London asking for asylum.
Later, Shari Brown of “Restore”—a project of Birmingham Churches Together—arrived, and spoke to the group on the legal definitions of “refugee” and “aslyum-seekers”, and on government services available to them. She also described her experiences of working with refugees from many countries in order to help them obtain the resources they need. One of the more interesting initiatives of this project has been their “Befriending” program for volunteers, for people who accept an assignment to accompany specific refugees and their families as they adjust to live in a strange, incomprehensible land.
Finally, before the U.S. delegation returned to their residence—the Columban house near Birmingham, driven there in a Catholic school van by Fr Denis Carter – six refugees from different countries in Africa and Asia cooked dishes of their typical cuisines for the US delegation and their hosts in the Fatima House kitchen. Each also had the opportunity to talk about their often frustrating experiences with existing asylum procedures and gaps in the services available to them, as government funding for people in their situation shriveled up.
Flavours of solidarity and emotion flowed through these remarkable and moving events of the day, but as in our varied supper of spicy and delicious foods at its end, we were left heartened at the intimate, nourishing experiences of support, compassion and friendship around us. I felt warmed and able to walk somewhat more firmly into the darkening world about us.

Wednesday 6 July
Rebecca Eastwood
(Becca is the Advocacy Associate at the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington, D.C.)

As a self-proclaimed political junkie, when I was told our group was scheduled to visit the British Parliament at Westminster during our time here, I immediately started geeking out. Even as we woke up before the sun this morning, to catch the early train to London (to which our hero, Fr Dennis Carter, so graciously transported us), I looked forward to observing, leaerning and comparing our government and advocacy systems.
Upon arrival in London, we met with the wonderful people of CAFOD, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Developmment. From them, we learned about the work of CAFOD and their fourfold foundational basis: Long-term overseas development, Emergency response, Education of the Catholic community, and Tackling the structural causes of poverty. The personnel of CAFOD who worked in the splendid Romero House also told us of Columban projects in Peru that they support and educate people about, including programs for youth and the environment. After learning about a piece of their work, taking the experience, knowledge and beliefs of CAFOD and its partners all over the world and using it to inform advocacy and policy, we headed over to the place where much of this work takes place: Parliament.
Several Catholic Parliamentary Interns led us on a tour of the buildings, explaining the workings of Parliament and its various traditions and landmarks, such as where suffragettes chained themselves to statues during the movement for women’s right to vote. We then had the very unique experience of meeting with both a Member of Parliament (House of Commons) and a member of the House of Lords. Their presentations encouraged me to reflect on the role of faith in politics. Working for a faith-based advocacy organisation, this is a theme we return to again and again.
Today we saw faith playing a bridge-building and community-building role in politics. From an advocacy perspective, a faith perspective allows us to bring the urgency of the conditions of those on the margins of society—refugees, unemployed, prisoners—to the attention of those in a position to alter these conditions, within a framework of values and beliefs that will reveal the success or utter failure of these attempts to alleviate suffering and establish justice.
From a politician’s perspective, a faith dimension allows people to build bonds across issues and over party lines, based on a common belief. In today’s visits with advocates and policy-makers, we saw the many positive roles faith can play in politics, especially in very precarious and divisive times throughout the world.
We then concluded our day with a quintessentially British meal: fish and chips. Now, as we all sit, half-asleep on the train back to Birmingham, I feel renewed and inspired in our continued use of advocating for justice and peace, through our faith.

Thursday 7 July
Alejandro Lara
(Alex is a member of the Young Adult Ministry community, and of St. Luke’s Catholic Church, of El Paso, Texas. He holds a Masters in Environmental Science from the University of Texas at El Paso.)

Today on our Invitation to Mission Programme here in Birmingham, UK, we went to a Gurdwara temple to have a better understanding of the Sikh religion. This faith tradition originated 550 years ago in India, by Guru Nanak, who is believed to have come to this world as a messenger of God. Since then, ten Gurus have passed on Sikh wisdom and revelations, one after another. The tenth Guru collected all the teaching and compiled one sacred scripture, venerated daily in the different prayer halls of the Gurdwara. They have very strict rules and five articles of faith which identify any Sikh around the World.
The Gurdwara Temple here in Birmingham has 25,000 visitors a week, with food always hot and fresh, ready for visitors to eat, as a way to show respect, and a sign of hospitality. The food was very good, very similar to the Mexican food we often eat back home in El Paso. Sikhs are vegetarian and they cannot consume any alcohol, nor can they smoke. All the money they get as a faith community is from donations. They have a lot of volunteers that help to run their temple, and they live by their values: to serve family and God’s creation.
Afterwards, we visited a museum, where different religious traditions and communities which reside in Birmingham were exposed to us. Different valuables objects from Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, the Quakers and other Christian Churches were displayed. It was a very valuable experience since we had the chance to compare and contrast the different religions, and it gave me a better understanding of my own religion.
We also had the chance to walk around the section of Birmingham known as Sparkhill, to explore the culture and religions of the area through observation and conversation with the residents. Most are Muslim, mainly from Pakistan. I found out the meaning of “Halal”, and talked to a man called Rizzi, from Afganhistan. He was very helpful in explaining to us about the different types of meat, and a little bit about their culture.
At the end of the day, we went with the Columban lay missioners from the Philippines – Rose and J.J. – and we had some dinner and a very gratifying conversation. I got a better understanding of their role, and the different challenges and opportunities they have here in Birmingham. We even danced and sang some karaoke, which made it a very relaxing and fun time. We had a very interesting and productive time today in Birmingham, with lots of rewarding experiences we will never forget.

Friday 8 July
Mark Brown
(Mark and his wife Claudia Brown are Columban friends who have visited Columban projects in Peru previously.)

Daily Mass was available again for those wanting to participate and it was, as the previous ones had been, a thought-provoking, spiritual way to start your day. After breakfast, we all went to meet the staff at St. Columban’s. These energetic and faith filled people work hard behind the scenes allowing the Fathers, Lay Ministers and volunteers to go about their daily projects.
Back to the meeting room we met with Ellen Teague, of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation team of the British Region, who discussed Laudato Si’ and its impact. Some of the discussion topics included: Looking at the environmental impact of climate change on people, and not just the economy; How caring for the Earth is an important part of Catholic Social Teaching; Climate change is human-induced; Our “throwaway” mentality, loss of biodiversity, global inequality and social breakdown.
Ellen’s talk was divided into two parts, between and after which we were allowed to reflect on the discussion topics and asked to “show” our reflection through some form of art (painting, drawing, writing, etc.). During these two reflection periods we were allowed to go anywhere on the grounds of St. Columban’s. It was a beautiful experience and a time of solitude to reflect, not only on Ellen’s topic, but the week so far in the UK. A wonderful opportunity. We had a feast for lunch (lamb, potatoes, carrots, dessert, etc.) and were invited to share the meal with the Columban Fathers from the house, as well as Fr Sean McDonagh, Ellen and Fr Sean Dwan. The discussions around the various tables were very good.
The afternoon found us at Hope Garden, a home for destitute asylum seekers, where we met Mary, a volunteer. She is a very lively and spirited woman who deeply cares about the women seeking help. We had the opportunity to get our hands, faces, hair and clothing dirty or painted on.
Our projects included painting a fence, cleaning up the “rubbish”, trimming/cutting the hedges, cleaning out the shed and all around tidying up. We were blessed with a wonderful treat of tea, scones and fresh raspberries picked from the garden.
One of the ladies present had lived at Hope Garden many years ago and told us her story. She continues to come to the house and meets with others, usually on Wednesdays, to work in the garden, have tea, talk, and laugh. One comment she made stuck with everyone there … “we are growing our lives here”. So, the impact of this place on those it touches was very apparent to us. Following our “work” we visited Mauricio and Nathalie’s “allotment”, a garden area they have along with many other families. Their area was full of amazing vegetable plants and a few fruit trees. It was a nice place that Mauricio says has a way of calming him after hectic work days. After that we went to their house for pizza and a discussion led by Fr. Martin Newell, C.P., about his climate activist actions. All-in-all, another wonderful day seeing all parts of what the Columbans are involved with here in the UK.

Saturday 9 July
Gloria Matamoros
(Gloria is from St. Pius X parish community in El Paso, and is a Columban Companion in Mission)

Today is a rainy Saturday morning. We drove to one of our favourite places, the English Martyrs Catholic parish, for a session with Margaret and Theresa, two women who are part of the Bethel Doula Service Center in Birmingham. They have come to speak to us about the aid they provide to pregnant women or women who have recently given birth (A Doula is a woman who gives support, help, and advice to another woman during pregnancy and during and after the birth).
These women are often asylum seekers or refugees. When they arrive, they often feel vulnerable and alone. Many are emotionally unstable because they have fled terrible situations like conflict and poverty and often arrive with nothing. Others are accused of being witches and suffer terrible treatment.
Teresa is a Bethel Doula. Some of the services that she provides include: listening and providing emotional support; providing support at appointments; staying with them when they are in labour and giving birth; breastfeeding instruction, etc. The session was very informative and most of us were not aware of the amount of suffering that these women and girls have endured.
Today is almost the end of our visit. We have learned many ways in which the people of this area help those in need. We have seen, that even though there are many cultures in this country, people seem to be very accepting of their differences. Adelante!

Sunday 10 July
Jenny Labbadia
(Jenny is the Communications and Outreach Associate with the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, which is based in Washington.)

Can we love those that we disagree with?
This was the focus of a mission trip I participated in to the UK. In Birmingham, Columban missionaries and lay missionaries work with groups of Muslims and Catholics, among others, to create spaces for dialogue and mutual understanding. In Birmingham, 46% of the population is Christian, 22% is Muslim, 19% do not have a religious affiliation, 3% are Sikhs and 2% are Hindu. In such a diverse city, finding a path for mutual understanding among diverse groups might seem difficult.
In today’s political climate, migrants and refugees are often vilified, linked to terrorism, and seen as the cause of unemployment. In Britain and the US, and in other places around the world, compassion for migrants and refugees is very low even in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. It’s easy to love those who already love us, but it’s harder find compassion for those we disagree with. Taking the time to listen to each other before judging takes patience, but it creates a space for understanding.