Welcoming Iranian asylum seekers: our story
Minister Jonathan Keyworth shares how life at Heywood Baptist Church, Greater Manchester, has been transformed
On a grey Sunday morning in November 2015 there was something remarkably different about the congregation at Heywood Baptist Church. Usually we had a congregation of around 50 people, nearly all of whom were white British, but on this Sunday, nine Iranian men of varying ages sat huddled together at the back of the church. They had recently been moved into Heywood by Serco (the firm responsible for providing asylum seekers with accommodation and support), and were placed in the same house together, within walking distance of the church.
They came to us seeking a place to worship, with some requesting baptism, but ultimately, they were introduced to us by one of their friends housed in the north east, who recommended attendance at a Baptist church due to the welcome he had received at Stockton Baptist Tabernacle.
Little did we know it, but this would be the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the church. Over the past two years church life has been transformed. There are now almost as many Iranians in attendance on Sunday mornings as there are ‘Heywoodites’, and the presence of Iranians amongst us has led to the arrival of asylum seekers of other nationalities as well. Scripture readings are projected in Farsi as well as English, open prayer is now a multi-lingual experience, and we have learned a few Farsi songs. New life has been breathed into our worship, and since January 2016 we have baptised more than 20 Iranians, with more baptisms planned, including our first Afghan man and a Ugandan woman.
We have started a number of activities mid-week too. We have a Farsi language Bible study, that focuses on the sermon text from the previous Sunday, and gives a good chance to teach the Christian faith to relatively new converts, and those who are simply interested in Christianity. We have introduced a weekly social evening, with the intention of helping asylum seekers and refugees integrate into the church community. We have also transformed a couple of under used rooms in the church into a classroom primarily for teaching English, and one of our recently retired members has undertaken intensive ESOL teacher training.
Of course, there has been a high pastoral demand placed on the church. We have been supporting asylum seekers through a difficult time of separation from their family. We have provided assistance, as far as possible, in dealing with what often seems like an arbitrary and hostile approach to asylum claims by the Home Office. We have attended court for asylum appeals, as witnesses in 13 cases (12 of which have thankfully been successful), and as a supportive presence in other hearings too. Finally, we have provided support to those who have received leave to remain in the UK, including assistance with family reunion, finding school places, and negotiating the system to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance.
Blessing, new life and flourishing ministry
Shortly before the arrival of Iranian asylum seekers in Heywood, I had been having conversations with Justin Kennedy, at that time a church member, about a potential calling into Baptist ministry. He threw himself into work alongside the new Iranian arrivals, and it has been incredibly encouraging to see his ministry develop and flourish.
As a church, we not only recognised his call, but were able to offer him a placement as a ‘minister in training,’ due to generous sponsorship from church members, and since we have gained further financial support from NWBA’s ‘Count me in’ initiative. Over the next couple of years, before Justin is possibly called elsewhere, our aim is to build up leaders from within the settled Iranian community, so that this important ministry amongst asylum seekers continues to develop even in his absence.
Central to our approach has been open hospitality and seeking to include Iranian converts in all aspects of church life. We have been inspired by the story of Ruth, and the instruction in Deuteronomy 10:19 ‘to love those who are foreigners…’
Many of those who have been baptised have been brought into church membership, and in November 2017 we were delighted that two Iranians were elected onto the leadership team of the church.
One of the two elected to the leadership team, Michael, was among the original group of nine men who arrived two years previously. He became a Christian in Iran, where he held a high position in the emergency services. He attended a house church, meeting in secret, hidden from the authorities, but after a while the church was raided and Michael had to escape.
Upon arrival in Heywood he speaks of a loving welcome to the church. He is thankful for the way in which he was treated with respect, the amount of time that was afforded to him and to others, and the opportunities that were given for the Iranian newcomers to serve in the life of the church. There is a real heart to serve within this community, whether it be moving furniture, hoovering, cleaning dishes, decorating or helping people in need, our Iranian brothers and sisters are always amongst the first to volunteer.
Michael contributes with wisdom in Bible studies, gives pastoral support as well as practical advice to others in the midst of the asylum process, and helps with translation when it is required. Along with a couple of others he encouraged every member of his shared accommodation to attend the church, and to take part in house group Bible studies and prayer.
Michael was fortunate, in that his claim for asylum in the UK was accepted without having to go to appeal. Even so, by the time his wife and two children arrived in the UK he had been separated from them for over 18 months. Like many of the Iranian Christian converts who arrive in the UK Michael was the only family member to have become a Christian, so it was hard for the rest of the family to understand this sudden disruption to their lives. A once comfortable life in Iran was, until the local council found suitable accommodation, swapped for life crammed into a single bedroom flat in Rochdale, while Michael worked nights in a pizza shop. Through everything that he experienced Michael acted with great calm, integrity and dignity. The peace that he knows in Christ is truly reflected in his life. Things are starting to improve for the family, now that life is being rebuilt in a suitable home, and the educational needs of the children are being met.
Through Michael, and the individual experiences of each and every asylum seeker who has joined our congregation, we have come to understand the real cost that many people pay when they become a Christian. We have seen the effects of religious persecution, wept with people whose friends have been imprisoned, and prayed with those whom fear for the safety of loved ones. We must never lose sight of the privilege it is to worship freely in this country, and it is a joyous thing to see men and women worship Christ openly for the first time without fear of persecution.
We do have to take precautions to protect the identity of asylum seekers. Social media and photographs have to be used discreetly. There is still concern for family members and friends left behind, and some fear the presence of spies in Iranian congregations in the UK.
Learning from Persian culture
While the Iranians within our congregation speak of the great hospitality they received upon arrival at Heywood Baptist Church, we have actually been taught a lot more about hospitality by our Iranian brothers and sisters. If you visit their homes, then you must go with an empty stomach as you will be fed. Quick visits to drop off paperwork are practically impossible. Even as an unexpected visitor you will be expected to at least eat fruit and have a drink! Hospitality and welcome is taken to a whole new level, there is always time for a guest.
A further aspect of Persian culture is that when an Iranian enters a room they will greet every person present, with at least a handshake if possible. This can be quite disruptive during church services! Yet the reality is that to greet others properly, and depart in the same way, is a mark of respect, and all are included in that.
When we hear the testimonies of those to be baptised, they often speak of finding ‘the way’. In Christianity they find a way of life rather than a set of rules and regulations. For the first time, through Christ, they have discovered that God loves them, and have found peace and forgiveness instead of judgment. They have found a God who is a caring father rather than a dictator.
Many Iranians speak of dreams and visions in a way that is now often overlooked in western culture. We still have some way to go in learning how best to incorporate this spirituality in our worship. Iranians also place a high value on poetry and song. It is a sadness that poetry does not translate very well.
Yet the biggest challenge that our Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ have brought to us is their sheer enthusiasm in practising their faith. There is a great appetite to learn, and this is not only from those still in the asylum process. Farsi language Bible studies are packed, there is a desire to pray, and an openness in requests for prayer. New life and fervour has been brought to a church that was in some ways tired and seeking purpose.
It has been a privilege as a church to be involved in the lives of these Iranian asylum seekers. The church has been transformed by their passion for Christ, and will continue to be transformed the more integrated they become in the life of the church. There has been disappointment, especially when families have moved on to London, yet we remain in contact with many who have left. There has been despair, when asylum applications have failed and the threat of deportation becomes a reality.
But, overall, there has been a clear sense of the Holy Spirit at work, joy at being involved in the work of God’s kingdom, and delight in seeing people find faith in Jesus Christ.
*Michael is not his real name
Jonathan Keyworth is minister at Heywood Baptist Church