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Interview: Sam Slatcher, founder, Stories of Sanctuary

16 August 2019

‘Here were the radical community-minded, social-justice-loving Christians that I never met at university’

For the past two years, I’ve been working on music-related projects three days a week. The other two are working as north-east regional co-ordinator for City of Sanctuary, a movement that builds a culture of welcome for those seeking sanctuary. All the projects I have on the go relate to working with people from refugee backgrounds, whether touring the Stories of Sanctuary production, which is a series of songs we co-wrote; or in workshops exploring the theme of sanctuary with different communities.

My days increasingly involve loading and unloading keyboard, guitar, various boxes of percussion, and mostly-assembled choir scores into my little car. I’m usually up by 7 a.m., walking in the fields outside Durham, listening to recordings of songs written from the community projects I’m involved in, or some of my own song-writing, with a guitar in hand to pick up where I’ve left off. Nights when I’m not rehearsing or gigging, I’ll enjoy with my wife, or with our Mishpocha friendship group (a Hebrew word for family).

I grew up in the ’90s, learning guitar off VHS tapes of live performances of Coldplay, Stereophonics, the Edge from U2, Guns N’ Roses. . . I willingly joined my local church band, aged 13, as all the songs sounded like Coldplay and U2. I was also very fortunate to have piano lessons, although my ear for the tunes would always override the patience needed for music theory.

My dad’s CD collection has a lot to answer for. I discovered bands like Pink Floyd and Supertramp, and singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, and wished I’d grown up in the 1960s, when the Beatles and Bob Dylan were writing music.

Since I got an acoustic guitar for my 16th birthday, I’ve not really stopped writing music. I began the open-mic circuits at Durham University, and then performed further afield in cafés, small music venues, and pubs.

Most of the music I write today is on acoustic, sometimes on piano, and it tends to be gentle, reflective folk music — partly because I have a quiet voice, and partly because I’m trying not to disturb others when I’m songwriting in the countryside or in quiet streets.

I never set out to be a folk musician, and many folk clubs wouldn’t see me as a folk artist; but the centrality of story to the music and the simplicity of performing on acoustic really appeals to me.

I’ve always thought that, since story and community are at the heart of the Christian message, folk music should be a natural style of music to help tell our story, as well as the stories of those who’ve come before. I grew up in the Methodist Church, and in many ways the Wesleys were the folk musicians of their time. “I/You (God)” or “We/You (God)” songs tend to dominate the worship scene now, but there’s so much scope to explore characters, plots, or messages to one another.

I run a social enterprise, Citizen Songwriters, which brings people together through creating original songs. The projects aim to get people thinking creatively about where they live, who they share it with, and how they might express their feelings together in song. Recently, I’ve been working on a project called Welcome Town, with Stockton Arts Centre and the performance artist Natasha Davies; and a project with Stronger Communities Middlesbrough, writing music about Albert Park, in Middlesbrough, with people in their eighties who remember the park from childhood, and asylum-seekers who find solitary space in it to come to terms with their journey.

Some refugees came to the north-east via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme in 2015, when stories like the little boy washed up on the Turkish beach had people petitioning to be allowed to take refugees in. The Government pledged to take 20,000 refugees by 2020, and 200 were settled in County Durham. Five thousand arrived in the North-East by more unconventional means. Middlesbrough, Newcastle, and Gateshead are deprived urban centres with cheap housing where asylum-seekers — often doctors and accountants who had enough money to flee — end up living in terraced housing on less than £37.50 a week. Lots of churches are trying to help with soup kitchens, travel, clothes, legal support, and language classes.

I was studying politics in the Middle East for geography in a cosy Durham bubble, but aware of refugee families down the road. I volunteered at a language class, and ended up bringing my music, and they were plugging their iPhones into the sound system to dance. I applied for an Arts Council grant to explore how we use music to share stories of coming together to build our lives in the north-east of England. Stories of Sanctuary began in the summer of 2018.

The concept of sanctuary and the project is rooted in the story of Durham — a city founded by a community of monks fleeing the Vikings — and what sanctuary means for those who have fled war today.

The project became much bigger than I ever expected, attracting local artists, refugees who were passionate about storytelling, and a Syrian poet from Homs, who offered her ideas and lyrics. By the end, we’d created a choir and a whole album of songs and a production which we’re touring around the county.

We assume that we — the privileged host community — offer sanctuary to them, the newly arrived guest community, when, in fact, those who are fleeing war are best-placed to know what sanctuary means, opening their homes to strangers during the civil war in Syria, and throwing community banquets in a church in Durham. Some of the indigenous folks from the north-east have found sanctuary in the songs that the refugees wrote.

The first choir members are starting further education, work, or getting married; so, in many ways, the project has played its part to help last year’s arrivals settle, and we hope another cohort will benefit when we run the programme again next year. We’re arranging the album into a songbook for other groups who’d like to perform together.

The most rewarding moment is when I see the look in the choir’s eyes when they hear the rapture and applause of their audience. They don’t expect to be appreciated in this way. All the news stories seem to be negative about the demands that asylum-seekers are putting on society, or they’re stories of pity.

I’ve always had an underlying notion of a God of the universe, although I remember experiencing God in a very Charismatic way as a teenager, often in music. I’d lose myself in the countryside listening to U2’s “Joshua Tree” and feel very alive.

When I met my wife, five years ago, I became involved in what was then the No. 25 community (now Mishpocha). They were the radical community-minded, social-justice-loving Christians that I never met at university, who were sharing bunk beds to free up spare rooms and running a café serving food that was otherwise going to waste.

Around their table I met people who didn’t always feel included in church, sharing faith together there: asylum-seekers, members of the LGBT+ community, people who’d been to prison and were struggling with addiction.

I’m most moved by the presence of God when sitting in REfUSE café, which grew out of No. 25. It’s a sanctuary for anyone fuelling up on an ethical food source on their way to an XR protest, or because ends haven’t met this week, or that weekly state £37.50 while you await your asylum hearing has run out.

It makes me angry that the leader of our country openly lied his way to the top, deceived millions of people, and thinks it’s all one big game he can gamble with. And private parking companies set up entirely to make profit from the misfortune of ordinary people.

Visiting heritage railways, riding steam trains, and imagining life in another era make me happy. Or crisp autumn days with the smoky smell of burning leaves.

Young people who refuse to accept the “new normal” give me hope. I’m inspired by people skipping school to raise awareness of climate change, standing up for what they believe. We should be starting classrooms on the streets, encouraging that sort of enthusiasm for making the world a better place.

I pray for friends waiting for a decision on their asylum case. It’s hard to imagine how difficult life must be when everything is on hold and you’re not allowed to earn a living or live where you choose.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Desmond Tutu. If he can move me to tears of laughter from YouTube, then goodness knows what he must be like in person.

Sam Slatcher was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Stories of Sanctuary is at Leicester Cathedral on 27 August at 7 p.m.


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