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‘The doors are open’: London church helps Afghan refugees

05 November 2021

Madeleine Davies talks to a van-driving priest who rallied a community


The Revd Julie Coleman, with some of the donations collected at St John’s, Palmers Green, north London

The Revd Julie Coleman, with some of the donations collected at St John’s, Palmers Green, north London

BEHIND the reredos of St John the Evangelist, Palmers Green, and beneath an Edwardian stained-glass window depicting Christ on his throne, are cardboard towers comprising 627 boxes, as well as several prams, and stacks of nappies. “Boys 7-8 years” reads one box.

They will be heading to Manchester and Birmingham, where some of the thousands of Afghan refugees who have arrived in recent weeks are waiting for homes (News, 26 August). Sometimes, the Vicar of St John’s, the Revd Julie Coleman, drives the van herself. A former nurse and teacher, her LGV licence is among the qualifications that have come in handy since her ordination ten years ago.

She is “in awe” of the north-London community’s response to her request for donations, she says, surveying the stacks. “We have really pulled together as a community, not just as a church. . . To me, Jesus left a town and moved forward. He left the town to be responsible for each other, and this shows we are being responsible for each other. . . We are just grabbing the bull by the horns.”

In total, the church has taken in 5335 black sacks, containing everything from incontinence pads donated by nursing homes to stationery from schools.

St John’s was built in the early days of the last century, but Ms Coleman regards it as continuing the tradition of medieval churches, “built to store the wares of what was needed by the community”. Housing this generosity has required a degree of understanding from the congregation, to whom she has had to explain “why this looked like a jumble sale”. What was once the choir vestry stores another set of donations destined for Luton, while a meeting room is full of buggies, boxes of nappies, baby food, a TV, and even a fish tank.

A cupboard is topped with a huge supply of baby milk that requires no sterilisation: Ms Coleman has met several young Afghan mothers whose milk has dried up as a result of trauma. I notice a box filled with DVDs; there is a high demand for these from Afghan refugees eager to learn English, apparently. “Please don’t touch anything,” reads a sign on the door. “It may look like chaos but it’s organised chaos.”

Not everything here will go to Afghan refugees. Some is destined for the three refugees supported by the church, which helps to furnish the flats of women ready to move into their own flats. A rack of suits ready for young people seeking job interviews lines another wall. Nothing is wasted, Ms Coleman assures me.

An army of 72 volunteers (the oldest of whom is 87), many of whom are not members of the congregation, will spend hours sorting through what the community donates. “What you see will be replaced in about three days,” Ms Coleman says. She believes that “If I asked for baked beans, I think they would fill my church.”

The long-term plan is to secure the leases of two empty shops on the high street, enabling people in need to choose donations for themselves, “so we can give them their dignity”.

ALL of this is a far cry from the church that Ms Coleman inherited when she arrived three years ago; there was an enormous problem with anti-social behaviour. Well-intentioned efforts to help homeless people had resulted in drug-dealers’ operating in the church grounds, preying on vulnerable homeless people, and threatening mothers walking their children to nursery. The result was an anxious congregation and an alienated local community, who, Ms Coleman says, saw the church as “troublesome”. On arrival, she spent a lot of time apologising.

She also quickly implemented a “zero-tolerance” approach to anti-social behaviour, working closely with the council and the police, secured an emergency faculty to put gates on the porches, and organised a six-week life-skills course with youth leaders secured from the council.

“We think we can help all people, but if it’s at the detriment of the safeguarding of other people, then we’re not helping anybody,” she reflects. “It was about building relationships with them [the perpetrators] rather than them think that we are doormats that they can take whatever they want from because we are Christians. . . They were overpowering the congregation because they thought they could intimidate then and thought they could use their faith against them.”

Ms Coleman, who was herself attacked more than once, says that it drives her “insane” to be asked “‘Call yourself a Christian?’ Yeah, I do; but I don’t call myself a doormat.”

MADELEINE DAVIESSome of the donations collected at St John’s, Palmers Green

After the Covid-19 pandemic began, the scale of local need escalated. Food deliveries were arranged for care-home workers, the homeless, and people with mental-health difficulties. Ms Coleman learned of two people who, having watched the news, were too paralysed by fear to leave their homes. Today, the church operates The Ark out of its hall, serving meals to 456 people a week. Another service is Breaking Point, which offers support to the parents of young people caught up in gangs, many of whom struggled under lockdown without access to the support of their gang.

Seeing mission in action has been an encouragement to the congregation, Ms Coleman notes. “They are amazing human beings. It doesn’t matter if you are 80 years old: God still calls you to do mission.” But she recognises that, particularly as the first women incumbent, it was first necessary to gain their trust through social events, visiting, preaching on mission, and reassurance that their safety was her immediate priority.

The congregation has doubled to more than 140, and there are now three services on a Sunday, when around 24 cultures are represented; and there is daily morning and evening prayer. “Whether people come or not is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that the doors are open,” she observes. “People will come in off the street and say ‘I kept meaning to come into your church, but it has always been locked.’”

TODAY, people are queuing for The Ark with an hour to go until opening time. Volunteers in the kitchen are preparing vegetables, and evidence of positive relationships with other local churches lies under kitchen foil in the church — shepherd’s pie, delivered by a Greek Orthodox church near by.

Some of those behind the anti-social behaviour are now in prison, some have moved away, and some will be in the queue. While the situation in the church grounds has been tackled, Ms Coleman’s arm is in a sling after an attempt to protect a female parishioner who was being attacked in her driveway.

Eager to open up the church again to fresh deliveries, she is already looking forward to meeting more of the Afghan refugees at the end of her van journeys. Robed in a black cassock (it helps her to fit in in an area with a large Muslim and Greek Orthodox population), she is often mistaken for a nun, she says.

“They are not bothered that I am male or female. All they know is that I’m a Christian person who is going there to respond to a need at a time when they are very vulnerable and very lost, and they are so grateful. I can’t even begin to tell you.”

She has already met several times a “wonderful” 84-year-old woman with dementia whose community managed to get her on a plane after her family were killed in a bombing. “She bows, and I’ve told her not to bow, and I bow; so we bow to each other an awful lot.” Children often hang on to her, she reports: “it’s very moving.”

Not everyone is supportive. Volunteers have found notes in some bags (“They shouldn’t be here, our NHS is under strain.”). But, looking at the mountain of donations in the church in recent weeks, Ms Coleman sees evidence that “people have sacrificed things that they have held precious.”

It reminds her of a Biblical scene, too, “as though Jesus was here, feeding the 5000, just in a different way. He’s blessed this.”

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