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How to bring alienated communities together

by
15 January 2016

Enabling migrants and long-established groups to cohere socially is crucial: churches are well-placed to do it, says Martin Gainsborough

THE UK received its first 1000 Syrian refugees last month, under a scheme whereby the Government has pledged to accept 20,000 Syrians over five years. At the same time, there have been calls, including by the Church of England, for the Government to go beyond its target.

While it is absolutely right that the UK, and Christians in particular, are generous in welcoming refugees, many of our poorer communities here are struggling to adjust to past migration. Besides calling on the Government to be generous, more work is needed in thinking through the settlement of refugees — in particular, in engaging with the painstaking task of bringing alienated communities together.

In the inner-city parish where I am Priest-in-Charge, the past decade has brought high levels of immigration — in our case, mainly Muslims from Somalia. It is right that they have been given safe haven and a home in this country. That said, as residents will tell you, their arrival has changed the face of the parish from its earlier position as an exclusively white working-class area.

Many of us will want to celebrate this, remembering all the benefits that immigration can bring. The truth is, however, that the white British population in the parish, which ranks among one of the most deprived communities in the UK, is struggling greatly with the changes that have occurred.

Moreover, it is not just a white British problem: relations between the Somali Muslim population and the white British population are difficult from both perspectives, and the two communities live largely separate lives. Even educating the children together does not seem to bridge the divide: the separateness is noticeably visible at the school gate.

 

THE local church clearly has a crucial part to play in helping to overcome barriers and bring diverse populations together, and we are striving to do this. At a leadership level, relations between the church and the mosque are very good. We meet regularly, and can always be sure of easy dialogue, and the other’s support in the event of a problem.

Not long ago, the church and the mosque organised a “Food and conversation” event, including a quiz testing knowledge of British and Somali history and culture, which people from both communities attended. It was a happy occasion, and it was a real delight to hear members of the congregation, who had been cautious about coming, comment on how friendly the Somalis were.

Nevertheless, although this was a step in the right direction, the reality is that a sense of alienation between the communities remains high.

 

WHAT I am describing is clearly not unique to my parish. It is repeated throughout our country wherever significant immigration has occurred. So there are challenges about where and how people are settled.

Our poorest communities are often places where public services, such as GP surgeries and schools, are under most pressure. These may not be the best places to settle displaced persons, and yet past experience suggests that this is where refugees tend to be placed.

One response to the kind of arguments I am making is to bemoan the “xenophobic” attitude of sections of the British population, and hence to marginalise the issues they raise. This is foolish. Community cohesion is something that should matter to all of us — not least because its absence will only fuel radicalism, or the growth of far-right politics. To speak in this way is not to condone intolerant attitudes towards refugees; but, equally, it is not to say that people with such views are beyond the pale.

 

IN the parish where I work, the white British population on the whole have not travelled much; or, if they have, it is to fairly Anglicised holiday destinations in Europe. They do not have wide experience of people whose culture and customs are different from their own.

People in the parish will often recount to me stories of the alleged rudeness of the Somali population. With greater experience of cultural difference, however, one knows that it is not rudeness, but simply a different way of interacting. If you are not used to navigating different cultures, however, this will not be clear.

In addition, the white British community which I serve, which is also loyal and lovable, is at the bottom of the ladder economically and socially. The parish has never recovered from the decline of British industry: unemployment is high, and residents get short shrift from people in authority.

Those of us who live in leafy suburbs, enjoy relatively prosperous lives, are not dependent on the state, and have had opportunities to travel can fail to appreciate how challenging the arrival of people from another culture can be.

 

AS we know from the Gospels, Christ comes alongside allpeople. This includes those forced to flee their home on account of war, as it does the poor and marginalised in our own society. It also includes people whose perspective on immigration we may not share.

There is much that the Church can do to help address some of these problems. This is not just a task for parishes in the inner-city or outer estates, or those with large Muslim populations. Breaking down barriers, building relations, and encouraging understanding are things to which all churches can contribute.

In planning any initiative, it is best to conceive of three distinct stages: first, building relations with alienated white British populations; second, building relations with local Muslim or immigrant populations (this can happen in tandem with stage one); and, third, bringing the two groups together.

 

NONE of this work is easy. Indeed, it is slow and time-consuming. The third stage cannot happen until you have built up credibility and trust with your two respective groups. Furthermore, building relations with either community is a job in its own right; so it is worth having distinct teams working in one or other area, and playing to your strengths.

In terms of specific initiatives, one good approach to alienated white British populations is to work with children and young people, making projects accessible to those who are unlikely to have had contact with a church. In our church, for example, we run parent-and-toddler groups, go into schools, and run lunch clubs in the holidays.

Another approach we have taken is to go into pubs — the rougher the better. This is unbeatable in terms of getting to know people. As you drink your pint, be prepared for the conversation to be outside your comfort zone. Don’t judge. Resist the temptation to contradict. Get to know people first: you need to earn the right to speak.

Recently, I took a funeral for an elderly lady who had been born and bred in the parish. The church was packed. That I knew so many people, and they knew me, was not because they were churchgoers, but because of my weekly visits to the pubs. These kind of relationships are crucial for bringing communities together.

In building relations with Muslim populations, the mosque is a good place to start. Ask to visit; say you are from a local church, and that you are keen to strengthen ties between Christians and Muslims. Be up front about what motivates you, but perhaps not overly explicit about the negatives, as this can put people off.

Progress may be slow to begin with, but find ways to keep the relationship going. You could send gifts or cards at key points in the year, befriend individuals, join in with Muslim groups, fund-raise for work with Muslims in areas of conflict overseas, and liaise with the mosque to ensure that the money gets to the right people.

When the time feels right, you might like to propose a joint event, aimed at bringing together diverse communities. The key is to keep it fun. It is not about learning about the finer points of each other’s faith. It is about friendship.

As churches, we know our communities. We have credibility among other faith organisations, and can move easily between alienated groups. At the same time, projects delivered by the local church are less likely to fall victim to the sort of top-down interference that has beleaguered so many initiatives in the past.

This work is not easy or quick. Nevertheless, it is urgent, and will make for a more rounded response to the migrant crisis, out of which something wonderful could be brought to birth.

 

The Revd Martin Gainsborough is Professor of Development Politics at the University of Bristol, and Priest-in-Charge of St Luke with Christ Church and St Matthew, Moorfields, in Bristol.

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