UK Vicar Welcomes Muslim Refugees to Church, Sees Many Convert to Christianity

 Members of the St Mark’s congregation. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Members of the St Mark’s congregation. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Refugees helped by the Rev Sally Smith have transformed St Mark’s in Stoke-on-Trent – and are among many converting to Christianity across Europe

The congregation of St Mark’s church in Stoke-on-Trent are in tears. The old walls are amplifying a booming version of the traditional Christian hymn Thanks to God as an hour-long baptism ceremony draws to a close. It’s a powerful, emotive rendition, yes, but the tears are for something else.

This particular voice is the Iranian Muslim Amir Nowjavni, singing in Farsi, who is one of 16 asylum seekers converting to Christianity on a Saturday afternoon.

The white faces who used to make up the congregation of this tiny church in a deprived area of Stoke have been replaced by an eclectic mix of Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and Eritreans who are all either looking for salvation in another religion or simply seeking charity.

In just three years, the Rev Sally Smith has presided over this total transformation of St Mark’s from a middle-class church to something resembling a refugee processing centre.

It is far from an isolated case. In fact, Smith’s story is a microcosm of what is happening across churches in Europe where a growing number of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity.

Some members of the local congregation have been receptive. But many have left, saying they feel alienated by the hundreds of new-look Christians, uncomfortable with the multicultural flags and incredulous at what they see as people taking advantage of Smith.

In some cases, she has housed asylum seekers, fed them, clothed them, bought new shoes for their children and looked after their medical needs. That kindness has led many to convert to Christianity – on average three to four a week. Some do it in secret, others out of a debt of gratitude; there are those seeking spiritual relief after experiencing atrocities.

“My biggest challenge has been the attitude of some of the people within the church,” says Smith. “I have had a lot of opposition. Criticism, negative attitudes and trying to undermine the work that we are doing – that’s from the white British congregation.

“I have lost lots of congregation members because of what has happened at the church. They don’t want the hassle and they don’t want the church being messed up. They see the church as having a very definite role and opening the doors to refugees isn’t one of them.”

She adds: “They expected a vicar’s role to be looking after the people inside the church and one of the insults often levelled at me is: ‘She cares more about the people outside the church than those inside.’ Well, this is what I am meant to be doing and you’re meant to be doing it with me. We should be doing this together.”

She is defiant, determined, but not naive. Smith – known as Mother Sally by the refugees – concedes that some do convert solely because they believe it will help with their asylum application, but she says these are few and far between. Others claim they have had the doors closed on them by mosques, who have turned them away in their hour of need, leaving them starving and homeless.

At St Mark’s they receive a warm welcome – the building is packed to the rafters with donations of everything required to set up a new home and food parcels are handed out twice a week. They are given bus fares if needed and Smith even takes them into her own home if they are homeless. Smith says: “It is about being part of a kingdom where there are no border agency officials, where there are no passports necessary, where there are no immigration detention centres. One worldwide family where there are no dividing barriers.”

Refugees who have made perilous journeys across many continents find themselves dropped off in the middle of Stoke. By word of mouth most of them find their way to Smith’s door. Once there, they are given medical assistance, food, shelter and clothes as well as being taught English. It is more than simply sustenance that Smith and St Mark’s supply. It is family, she says, for those left alone and isolated.

But can you really just swap one set of religious beliefs for another in 60 minutes on a sunny weekend in Stoke? Smith argues that in an increasingly global society, the differences between denominations are breaking down. “With the mass movement from across the world we have got people of faith coming into secular society and faith really matters to them,” Smith explains. “And they are not too bothered, as bothered as we may think, about how that faith is expressed.

“In our secular mindsets we have all these great divides from different faiths but what I am finding is that they don’t conform to these divides and they just want to come to a place of worship, whatever that place is – they don’t seem to distinguish as much as we would have expected them to. Our help that we offer is in no way related to converting them. The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”

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SOURCE: The Guardian