St Mark's, Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent, is the home of Sanctus. Team Vicar Sally Smith tells how it has now developed the Sanctus on Saturday fresh expression of church.
Since its launch, Sanctus – a support group for refugees and asylum seekers – has provided hundreds of people with a listening ear, help with bureaucracy, a friendly face, emergency accommodation and assistance with food, clothing, translation services – and spiritual care.
There is a heavy demand for its services as Stoke-on-Trent is one of the government's 'dispersal cities' for newly arrived refugees.
Sanctus meets each Wednesday morning from 10.30am-12.30pm. Men, women and children are all welcome, though we do have a meeting room which is for women only, as for some women, a mixed environment can be a hindrance to their participation. There is also a creche for pre-school children.
The drop-in sessions are supported by a team of committed volunteers, staff from the local Children's Centre, Sexual Health Services, Mental Health Asylum Support Team and other voluntary organisations.
Hassan Elvan, refugee from Gaza: Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. Never see peace. Thirty three years in Gaza, I saw too much blood in the streets.
Sally Smith, Team Vicar, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent: Stoke-on-Trent is a dispersal city for the Home Office which means that lots of people who are seeking asylum, once they've claimed asylum, get sent to Stoke-on-Trent because we've got a lot of cheap housing. What we were finding is that there were great needs in the community so we started to open the church door and basically welcome people in and several ministries have grown out of that; one of the most flourishing is Sanctus – which is our support group for refugees and asylum seekers.
Female voice 1: Ingushetia is a hot place. It's nice to live there, but if you have some political problems – like my husband did – it's difficult to live there and very dangerous. For that reason we left Ingushetia.
Sally: The people who have made it to Stoke-on-Trent, or to the UK, are people who had the resources actually to get here in the first place so they were people who were able to pay agents or traffickers. Probably the poorer people, the more working class people, haven't had the opportunity to do that.
Female voice 1: I worked for five years in the roads' department, like an accountant. My husband worked in a construction company.
Sally: And then when they get to Stoke-on-Trent they are finding that they are not able to have an outlet for their creativity, for their skills, for their talents, for their gifts.
Hassan: I don't like to stay at home and just sleep in and take benefits weekly. I doesn't like that system. I'd like to make new life, family. Very difficult with me, because refugee I am. Everything sometimes about my situation, difficult too much, for government not helping sometimes.
Sally: One of the things that we're trying to do is work with other agencies to provide opportunities for them to do that. And we are currently having conversations with the Chamber of Trade to see if we can provide volunteer placements in companies at the level at which people were used to working in their own country and in their own profession. We work with the local National Health Service nurses, with the Citizens' Advice Bureau, with the Children's Centres, family support teams and provide a holistic service – spiritually, practically, emotionally.
Hassan: And the church is making everybody very happy. The church is helping everybody. You're helping refugee, you're helping asylum seeker, you're helping about clothes, you’re helping children. Flashbacks make me too upset, make me nervous too much. I came in here four years ago. Different mental health, very difficult. I tried to kill myself 18 times, 18 times. I go into hospital, very dangerous time. I came in here, my life changed.
Sally: Since the new people have started to come into the church building during the week for our drop-ins, we're finding that many of those people are wanting to come and worship with us and some are coming on a Sunday morning so we're having a lot more baptisms, a lot more confirmations. And our recent confirmation services were looking very, very diverse, which was wonderful. It's been quite difficult for some people in the traditional congregation, I have to be honest, and a few people have left.
However, something new is emerging so that the fresh expression that we've started on Saturday – which is Sanctus on Saturday – we're getting lots of people from Iran and Iraq, Eritrea, all over the world, who may not necessarily turn up to church on a Sunday morning but are very keen to be involved in the life of the church. And working with Philip Swan, who's the Cross-Cultural Mission Enabler for our Deanery, we've been able to develop a fresh expression of church where many of the people who come on a Saturday afternoon to share worship, to share food, are hearing about Jesus for the first time. Our Bible reading, particularly, has to be quite interactive because many people don't speak English or English certainly isn't their first language. And the really interesting about that is that we get the people who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu – people from all sorts of faith traditions – who really want to be part of the Bible reading and to play out that part.
So, at the last Sanctus on Saturday, a lady was really keen to play Mary; we were talking about journeys and Jesus getting lost in the temple, Mary was actually a Muslim lady for our reading so that was really quite interesting and it feels quite messy around the edges because a lot of the people don't really fit into what we would think of as fully paid up, signed up Christians. But it's a great privilege to work with these people and to see what God's doing among them and now some Muslim people are wanting to come and help with the worship, help with teas, coffees, refreshments; help in the crèche.
When we're sharing with people from other faith traditions, one of the mistakes that we can quite easily make is thinking that it's about academic understanding so we've started to offer people the opportunity to receive the laying on of hands, prayer, and the wonderful thing about that is we've discovered that people from all sorts of religious backgrounds are really happy for us to lay hands on them and to pray for them in the name of Jesus. And then we'll talk about experiencing Jesus' peace and knowing that Jesus was there with them and, for me, it's not really about that we put someone through a test and 'can you say this' and 'do you believe that?' It's about 'come and meet Jesus, come and feel the difference that Jesus can make in your life, come and let Jesus touch you, come and kneel at our altar and let his Spirit come and wash over you and take away that fear and that anxiety and let Jesus give you his hope'. Not about what I can tell you is true or what I expect you to believe but 'come and experience the reality of the living Jesus, the living Lord'. And that's what's making the difference.
Hassan: Like that light, every time, like angel, like Jesus, like Mary, comes to visit me, make me stronger, pray before sleeping every day, make me too happy. I'm very, very happy if I'm talking like Holy Spirit is coming with me.
Sally: You know that we feel we're really at the beginning of something really quite exciting.