Finding Refuge in Windrush

Richard Reddie looks at the similarities between Windrush Day and Refugee Week, arguing that both initiatives enable us to focus on the challenges experienced by migrants 

For many Black folks in Britain, June is the month that we mark Windrush Day and celebrate the myriad contributions Black people have made to this country over the generations.

This year, being the 75th anniversary — and possibly the last major occasion to include those who actually sailed on that iconic sea vessel — it will have a special significance. As such, plans are afoot to celebrate this event in a plethora of ways, including a church service at Southwark Cathedral on 22 June 2023. Moreover, many Black Christians are using this anniversary as an opportunity to remind everyone that, alongside the National Health Service and London Transport, the Church has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Windrush Generation.

What is interesting is that Windrush Day always falls within the timeframe of Refugee Week, which is usually the third week in June. This year it is 19-25 June and is once again an opportunity for Britons to use the arts and culture to gain a better understanding of the lives and plight of refugees.

This year’s theme is ‘Compassion’, and organisers are calling on everyone to change the prevailing narrative of hostility toward refugees. Notwithstanding the way British and Irish people, especially Christians, have opened their homes and hearts to their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, it appears as if those fleeing danger elsewhere are personae non gratae. Sadly, a great deal of this negativity has been disseminated by politicians who have used inflammatory-like language that undoubtedly victim-blames some of the most vulnerable people in society. What is more, this has seen a number of incidents outside of hotels and hostels accommodating asylum seekers, which, on occasions, have turned violent.

I am currently the coordinator for the Churches’ Refugee Network, which encourages churches, para-church organisations and Christians to better engage in immigration and asylum matters. In response to these aforementioned incidents in areas with asylum seekers, we called on politicians to ‘mind their language’ and to avoid using speech that inflames rather than calms. Moreover, we argued that if governments persist in housing asylum seekers in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, those areas must be better resourced to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

One of the current arguments levelled by some local people is that asylum seekers allegedly obtain the lion’s share of what little resources are available. We also suggested that there needed to be better opportunities for encounter between local communities and asylum seekers to break down barriers, dispel misconceptions, and to offset the activities of far-right groups who appear hell-bent on stirring up trouble.

The last day of Refugee Week is Sanctuary Sunday, a day established by the Church of Sanctuary initiative, which was established by Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, to encourage churches on these shores to be more welcoming to refugees, asylum seekers and those in need of ‘sanctuary’. The Bible has much to say about the sanctuary and welcome toward the stranger and alien, and given the current times in which we live, it is paramount that churches take heed of the Good Book.

In the past, Christians — especially Black ones — adopted a binary approach to Windrush Day and Refugee Week; they either marked one or the other. I would argue that it makes sense to do both. At the heart of both Windrush Day and Refugee Week is a story of migration; people moving from one part of the world to another for various reasons. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what sort of welcome faces them?

We are all very familiar with the Windrush narratives of indifference at best and rejection at worst, when people first arrived in this country. We are also very cognisant of the ‘Hostile Environment’ and government policies designed to deter those who are deemed ‘illegal’. It can be argued that the opposite of hostility is hospitality, and for Christians, this means showing the love of Jesus Christ to those who are considered the ‘least’ in society.

Many churches will no doubt use the Windrush anniversary to reflect on the ways they failed to provide hospitality to those Black Christian men and women who were part of the Windrush Generation. I believe that reflection is a very useful activity, but I think it should also go alongside efforts to provide welcome to those who are most in need of it now, such as refugees and asylum seekers.

For more information about Refugee Week and Sanctuary Sunday, visit churchofsanctuary.org

Richard Reddie is a writer, researcher, cultural and religious commentator and broadcaster. He served as Director of Justice and Inclusion for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and is the author and editor of several books.

Written by: Richard Reddie

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