Written by Jenny Hudson
You can download the PDF of this resource here. See also other PDF handouts below.
PDF resource handouts to accompany this article:
Welcoming newcomers to your church can feel quite a challenge – but even more so when, out of the blue, you see a ‘foreign’ looking person in your church for the first time. Your first thoughts might be: “Who are they?”, “Where are they from?”, “Do they understand English?” and “What if I don’t know anything about their country?”
You might conclude that it’s easiest or even safest to leave them be, for fear of getting it wrong or embarrassing them or yourself. Or, hope that someone in your congregation is better equipped to rise to the challenge than you are! All too easily we hesitate - and thus lose the opportunity to extend them a welcome.
Yet God’s mandate to us is clear: Love the stranger! (Deut 10:19)
In fact, simple expressions of practical help, friendship and hospitality can have a huge impact on people who are a long way from home and feeling vulnerable and lonely, and speak volumes of God’s love for them. And often this will open to the door to be able to share the gospel with them sensitively.
So, how do we do this?
- Understand the situation
- Understand your guest
- Take the first steps: friendship, practical help, hospitality
- Think about going further
- Who else could help?
1) Understanding the situation
First, it’s important to realise that people of different ethnic backgrounds could be in the UK for a number of reasons:
Migrant worker – in the UK for a short or long time for economic reasons
Asylum seeker – in the UK to seek asylum because he/she faces real danger of persecution in his/her own country. A refugee would be someone who has been granted asylum in the UK. A failed asylum seeker would be waiting to be deported.
International student – here for a course of study at a university, college or language school
Visiting scholar – here for a course of research, usually at a university or institute
Initial questions to ask:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been here?
- Why are you here? Or less direct: Are you here to study, or work?
We can’t assume all are in the same situation. There is a world of difference between a man who is a researcher in biochemistry living on campus at a nearby university; a businessman in private rented accommodation or a hotel, taking a short course to improve his business English; a man waiting to hear whether his application for refugee status has been approved, and living on food stamps; and a man who’s been living and working legally in the UK for ten years, and whose wife and children have just come to join him. All are ‘strangers’ we are called to welcome, love, and serve with compassion and respect. All have needs (and much to offer) – but they’re vastly different.
Asking a few of these preliminary questions will help you begin to determine the person’s level of English and gain some understanding of their legal and financial status, as well as the support they might already be receiving, and who else is, or can be, involved. It’s important for us to avoid taking on roles for which we’re not equipped (e.g. dealing with legal, financial, health issues) – but to have an idea of where to direct them for specialist help if necessary. See ‘Others who might be involved’ below.
2) Understanding your guest: How might they be feeling?
This will depend greatly on the circumstances of their being here; how long they have been here, and their past experiences of travelling and living abroad. Many newcomers to the UK have a really positive experience: they are excited and eager to make friends and experience what our culture has to offer. But for whatever reason they are here, each newcomer will go through stages of adaptation to the new culture (what we term as ‘culture shock’), and will experience a range of emotions at times:
Many internationals complain of feeling isolated here. British people as a general rule are private people and keep themselves to themselves, and this isn’t a trait shared by a lot of cultures. This isn’t helped by our weather: those who come from warmer climates find the UK cold and uninviting. The need to stay indoors means we often miss out on a lively outdoors community through which to connect with others and make friends.
In many cultures, decisions are made by the family, possibly with the needs of the community paramount, whereas here the individual's right to make his/her own decisions is highly prized. This can be bewildering for those who come from cultures which are more relationship-focused, as can our fast-paced, time- and task-orientated lifestyle.
Some are here because of dangerous situations in their home countries which have forced them to seek safety elsewhere. They can face the threat of returning home if their application for asylum isn’t granted. Fear for their own safety (and that of family and friends) is a serious issue, and they may carry physical and psychological trauma from the experiences they have escaped.
Others have made a lot of sacrifices to come here to study or earn money to support their families – and feel a huge pressure to succeed and manage financially.
Living in a completely unfamiliar situation, and having to speak a language other than one’s mother tongue, can be an unsettling, even frightening experience. Some people may feel highly vulnerable, not knowing who can be trusted, or whether they are in danger of making mistakes or breaking the law.
Many newcomers to the UK are highly educated, skilled professionals in their own country, yet visa or language restrictions prevent them from exercising their skills or gaining satisfying employment here.
Inability to fully understand what is going on around them, or make themselves understood can also be problematic – due to language and cultural barriers. Unfamiliar everyday practices, including greetings, eating, use of money, shopping - all lead to a sense of disorientation. Many will find it hard to ask for help, or know who to turn to.
Regrettably, immigrants and visitors to the UK are sometimes discriminated against or subject to hostility – by apparently uncaring officials, or misinformed, suspicious local people.
3) First Steps: Friendship, Practical Help and Hospitality
Our first response is to show loving, unconditional welcome and to seek to understand.
- We need to overcome our natural reserve and take the first step. They are the visitors and we are their hosts. They are out of their normal culture and context, and everything is strange to them right now.
- Get to know how to pronounce and write their name, and show how to do the same with your name
- Speak at a normal volume and at a consistent, fairly slow speed (don’t over-emphasise a key word)
- Be aware of use of jargon and colloquialisms and be ready to explain them
- Give time and space for them to think of how to say what they want to.
- Show understanding of your new friend as they go through various emotions and experiences. For many newcomers we provide an invaluable listening ear: they’ll appreciate our loyalty and care.
- Have fun
- Invite them to your home and introduce them to your other friends and family – many visitors long for a sense of belonging
- Invite them to come to church events with you. This may be quite normal in their culture, and if not they will think it is a normal thing to do in ours!
You’ll find some more specific ideas for activities you could do, and conversation starters, in this handout: What Do I Do and Say?
Offering practical help
Life in the UK for a newcomer presents many challenges on a day-to-day basis. New2UK (available on http://www.new2uk.org/new2uk/life_in_the_uk/intro.php) offers a lot of practical information online – or print copies can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. (Note that this is designed for international students who have a reasonable command of English – you may want to adapt or explain if your friends can’t follow it all.)
Simple things you can help them with include:
- provision of household items, eg cooking utensils, bedding, furniture, etc. Some in greater difficulty might need clothing and food.
- finding accommodation, place of work/study, the post office, tourist information; take them on a tour of the area
- show how to use telephones, transport, bank, how and where to do the shopping
- help fill out forms
- help with language queries, or even to find English-language classes
Points to be aware of
Building friendships with others from very different backgrounds and in very different situations takes time, initiative, patience, and grace. We need to be adaptable, and slow to take offence. We also need to show sensitivity and respect for their culture and beliefs, and understanding of the situation they are in, as well as an awareness that each person is an individual and may respond differently. We can’t hope to know everything or get it right all the time; but showing we are aware of some differences in behaviour (eg food, dress), and that we want to be respectful, makes a huge impact.
Here are a few areas to be especially aware of:
- alcohol – this isn’t acceptable in all cultures. It’s best to check first, and if in doubt avoid serving it or suggesting to meet in a pub.
- food restrictions – the practice of different Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc will vary so it’s best to check directly beforehand. Your guest will be pleased that you have thought to ask about what is important to them.
- “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes”! – many cultures want to avoid causing embarrassment to others so might accept an invitation verbally, even if they don’t plan to keep it. Make sure there is clear and mutual understanding about what is said and meant.
- male/female contact – in the West we are often quite relaxed about male/female contact, but this isn’t the case in all cultures. Gestures and words can be easily misinterpreted so we do need to watch what we say, and not touch or be alone (including in the car) with someone of the opposite sex.
- taboo topics? – we can often be more direct with our friends from overseas, and may be able to talk more openly with them about our faith than we might expect to with a British friend. But we should never assume this is the case, or make them feel pressured into sharing what they’re not comfortable with. Let’s be sensitive and aware that details of their background may be too painful for them to share.
For further hints about offering hospitality see Hints for Hosts. This is specially geared towards international students and researchers as part of an organised hospitality scheme, but most principles will apply also to asylum seekers and other immigrants.
4) Going further
How might your church be involved?
In areas where there are larger numbers of immigrants and visitors from overseas, local Christians will often work together (sometimes in partnership with student Christian Unions or other churches) to offer a range of support. Find out what’s already going on, or you might decide to start yourselves:
Regular church family meals
Invite your international guests personally, welcoming their contributions, and guiding them through practicalities of where to sit, how to use cutlery etc. The dietary restrictions of other cultures and religions can be daunting, but it should be fairly simple to separate and label meat dishes (Muslim and Jews can’t eat pork, Hindus can’t eat beef). If in doubt, offer vegetarian options, clearly labelled.
Open house/Drop-in-centre/International Cafe
A regular, informal opportunity for visitors to gather in a welcoming home or church premises, make friends with each other and local Christians, receive useful information and practical help, learn about cultural events and local traditions and food (Christmas, Easter, national holidays). You’ll find some ideas for themes you might cover in the handout Ideas for International Cafés and Open House Events.
Mothers and toddlers group
Wives who are in the UK while their husbands study or work here are often particularly isolated, especially if their language skills are limited, or if they are caring for young children. A great way to grow relationships with them is to offer ‘coffee morning’ style sessions, with space for children to play safely, and time to share common experiences and interests – especially cooking!
English language classes
Free conversation classes can be really popular and a great way of building friendships, as well as providing a service that is greatly valued. It can make a big difference if childcare can be offered for those in the classes.
Many newcomers from overseas are interested to know about the Christian faith. We can be surprised by their openness and eagerness to ask questions. For some who come from ‘closed’ countries, this is a unique opportunity for them to hear the Gospel – let’s be alert to opportunities to share with them. There are a number of Bible study resources available to use in easy English for speakers of other languages such as Christianity Explored or Discipleship Explored (http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/outreach/christianity-explored/english-made-easy), and an ESOL version of the Alpha course is now being developed (http://uk.alpha.org/type/alpha-esol) is now being developed.
For more hints on leading Bible studies with friends from abroad see the handout Running Bible Studies for International Friends.
5) Other people who might be involved
A newcomer can present with a number of problems, and we can feel unnecessarily burdened to solve all of them! We need to be clear about what we can and can’t do. If God prompts us to offer extra help, such as accommodation – let’s be open and obedient to that! But it really helps to know who is actually responsible for their welfare while they are here:
- personal tutor or welfare officer at language school or university department
- university international office
- university accommodation office – provides information about accommodation available on campus, or for rent through the universities, agencies and landlords
- university chaplaincy – often multi-faith, they would generally avoid evangelism but offer spiritual support to students of all faiths or none
The UK Council for International Students’ Affairs () is the UK’s national advisory body serving the interests of international students and those who work with them.www.ukcisa.org.uk
Friends International (www.friendsinternational.org.uk) is an evangelical mission agency dedicated to encouraging and equipping UK churches to reach international students for Christ. They seek to help international students, whatever their faith or background, during their stay in the UK.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
The UK Border Agency () is part of the Home Office controllinghttp://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/ migration in the UK. They enforce immigration and customs regulations and consider applications for permission to enter or stay in the UK, and for citizenship and asylum.
Citizen’s Advice Bureau (www.adviceguide.org.uk) is the first port of call for local information.
The Refugee Council ()http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk offers advice and support to all refugees and asylum seekers.
The Immigration Advisory Service (http://www.iasuk.org/home.aspx) is a charity providing advice and legal representation.
There are many local refugee centres, often run by charities, councils and/or churches. Look on the internet under “refugee centre” or “race and equality centre”.
EQUIP (http://www.equipnetwork.org.uk/) is a network of Christian organisations reaching out locally to asylum seekers and refugees.
The Evangelical Alliance’s Don’t Be a Stranger Campaign (www.nostrangers.org.uk) showcases stories from migrants who have come to the UK and the churches working with them, as well as resources for people who want to find out how they can do more to help.
Faith to Faith (http://www.faithtofaith.org.uk/) is a Christian forum and resource centre on other faiths in the UK, offering expertise and materials for Christians who wish to engage with people of other faiths, building relationships of trust and friendship and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ through words and action.
The Churches’ Refugee Network (http://www.ctbi.org.uk/96), part of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, aims to provide a collective and ecumenical voice on issues of asylum and immigration.
© Jenny Hudson 2011.