I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.
The story has been escalating in the media and public awareness since the weekend, but it’s been building up over months and years. I’m not sure there is such a thing as low level intimidation, or that what’s happened to the Romanian community living in south Belfast can be described as sporadic attacks. And shamefully, I’m sure the incidents are a lot more widespread than just the one area or the one minority community.
Having abandoned their homes, twenty families came together in one house, hoping for safety in numbers. The police decided last night that 115 residents of Belfast (including a five day old baby) needed to be sheltered overnight somewhere safe.
And so the call was made to City Church to see if their hall could be used. By the sounds of the news reports this morning, it happened quickly.
There was no need for a church community consultation. No need for a lengthy risk assessment to evaluate the chances of damage to the fabric of the building or indeed future reprisals. No need for a meeting of office bearers to vote on whether this fitted with the church’s mission and vision statements. No need to check the hall booking spreadsheet to see if it was really free or whether the flower arranging group already had first dibs.
No. Someone simply said yes ... and then went about making it happen. (Update - City Church's Trish Morgan explained what happened in Thursday morning's Belfast Telegraph.) The words from Matthew’s Gospel above sum it up well.
With help from the church, neighbouring congregations, the local community as well as statutory and humanitarian organisations. Turns out that the local Red Cross are equipped in “first world” Northern Ireland to support displaced residents just like any other country they operate in.
Belfast’s Lord Mayor Naomi Long summed it up well on Good Morning Ulster as I drove into work. Articulating the shame she felt, Naomi went on to say:
“They have a right to be in Belfast they are part of the fabric of this city. I want to see them treated with the respect and dignity that I would demand for any other citizen.”
And the BBC’s Mark Simpson summed up what he saw last night:
“Looking at 115 Romanians huddled together on the floor of a Belfast church hall, it was possible to see the worst side of Northern Ireland - and the best - all at once.
The speed with which Pastor Malcolm Morgan and his team created a temporary home for 20 families was remarkable.
At the same time, the sight of men, women and children looking so helpless and scared was a stain on Northern Ireland's international reputation.
Many of the families came to Belfast believing that the years of prejudice and narrow-mindedness were over. However, it seems that in some parts of the city, racism is the new sectarianism.”
Looking forward, twenty families can’t live in a church hall forever, nor in the Ormeau Park’s O-Zone. Surely they need to be welcomed back into the community, shown great love and assured of their safety.
Is one of the practical solutions not that the local community, so outraged by this incident, host individual families in their own homes. What a way to show sacrificial love and solidarity, by sharing food, rooms and families. And any stones that do still get thrown while all this gets sorted out longer term will no longer just be hitting the windows of a minority.
Update - Crookedshore posted about the recent One Hundred Thousand (ways to) Welcome event, and finished with something that reminds me that God had already prepared for the eventuality that newcomers and visitors might be treated less well:
The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the Lord. (Numbers 15:15)