The Bridge Builders’ Tale

Tales from End to End
The Bridge Builders’ Tale

by Stephen Rippon

The Humber Bridge is a monumental achievement of engineering. However, Bridge-Building of another kind has been the challenge of Hull’s ‘Open Doors’ project as it has sought to offer friendship and help to people in desperate need of welcome and acceptance. Stephen Rippon here tells us about opening doors and building bridges.

Stephen Rippon
Stephen Rippon

When on a journey we are looking at the rocks on the road and the potholes to save us from stumbling. So it is good to stop and to look at the view, because the Lord does not want us to look down but to look up! After 10 years plus the Project is in a very different place from where it started; in the same location, using the same spaces but transformed by the people who have come to travel with us.

The people who travel with us are the ‘clients’, who are asylum seekers and refugees. ‘Client’ does not seem to be the right word but ‘asylum seekers’ seems a bit cryptic. We could call them ‘strangers’ but they are not strangers for very long in the Drop-In; they soon become friends.

‘Drop-In’ is a phrase used in many churches for mid-week, open door activities where there is tea and toast or coffee and chat. Open Doors is a Drop In.

The other people are the ‘volunteers’. Some clients are also volunteers. ‘Confusing?’

These volunteers emerged from the early group of asylum seekers whose asylum claim process was long delayed. Two women; one married with children being cared for 5 000 miles away, one single. They were destitute and being supported by generous donations from well-wishers, channelled through the OD Project. They come now when they can, from College courses, from unpaid jobs (they are not allowed to work for pay) and they help with the masses of washing up following the meal we serve to everybody at 12 noon. The ‘English’ volunteers thus get to know the ‘strangers’ and friendships deepen. Many more people have come to volunteer so that we count as volunteers a student from Lithuania, a retired lawyer, an Iraqi interpreter for the Allied forces in the Iraq war, a University researcher, and several grandmas from the neighbourhood. Not everyone has a religious affiliation; most would subscribe to the notion that Britain has been multicultural since the Romans came in 55BC and every influx after that. If there is British national identity then DNA history will show that it is a much less pure identity than say the Bantu of Central and South Africa. In Christ there is no division by gender, race or status.

A third group are the ‘support services’. These included in the early days, Sure Start, Humberside Police (both local area and Equality and Diversity Team), NHS Homelessness Team, and NHS interpreters; Social Services, Citizens Advice Bureau (Leo Schultz Project), Council for Drug Prevention, Women’s specialist agencies for the vulnerable, Skills for Communities, Humberside All Nations Alliance, the Haven Project (specialist Mental Health assistance for people who suffered trauma). This is a long list and someone will have been left out. Due to cuts in local authority grants some of these services have already been closed down.

I would contend that almost everyone supports the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. We believe that people should be given asylum ‘owing to fear of persecution on protected grounds.’ Protected grounds include race, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. To turn that support into practical action is an aim of Open Doors.

But being immersed in the reality of greeting asylum seekers and in supporting asylum seekers does not require knowledge of the law or the process. It is a personal response to seeing the stranger who has been forced to leave his or her real life behind when in mortal fear. A smile, a handshake, an embrace, ‘Hello’ or ‘Salaam’ are more vital than being able to quote the UN Convention.

It does need a person to volunteer who sees the asylum seeker as a fellow human being (or child of God, if the volunteer is a believer). For a Muslim the notion of an International brotherhood where all are equally under the will of Allah may be a more powerful motivator. A Christian will meet with Christ in the person of the stranger, the poor and the outcast and keep before him or herself the Parable of The Great Banquet in Luke 14. I am happy to say that Muslims, Christians and other Faiths like Baha’i and Zorastrian have been among our regular clients and volunteers, and people of no declared belief.

If you think that a live demonstration of Luke 14 can be as powerful as a sermon in opening doors for people to enter the Kingdom of God, why not call to see us, why not add us to your prayer list, why not see what you or your church can do to be a place of welcome for asylum seekers and refugees. Why not become a donor?

One of the solicitors visiting Open Doors from the Immigration Advisory Service in Leeds came out of the interview room with a beaming smile on his face. ‘The kingdom of God is in this place’, he said.

People are coming from everywhere and finding a welcome and sitting down together.

Stephen Rippon
A key innovator and contributor in the ‘Open Doors’ project for many years.