Easter Saturday is a time of real reflection for Christians, and this Easter Saturday, I’ve been left reflecting on the lessons that I’ve learned over the past few months. And I have been led to the following (and somewhat surprising) conclusion: one of the most profound influences on me as a Christian have been my Muslim Sudanese friends.
When I started Fresh Start, the aim was to help recently-arrived refugees and asylum seekers – regardless of nationality, religion, etc – to feel truly welcome here in what must have seemed like a strange land. Somewhat arrogantly, I went in with the mindset that I’d always be the one that was “giving” in these relationships. How wrong I was.
I clearly hadn’t properly read my Bible, as Jesus makes the mutuality of loving others abundantly clear in Matthew 25. He says to His followers: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me“; and then in response to their understandable confusion (“Lord, when did we see you as a stranger and invite you in?”), He says: “Whatever you did for my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Reflecting on these words now, I can see how true they are. I only hope that the recently-arrived individuals who I work with have been as helped, welcomed, and blessed by our friendship as I have been. I’ve been inspired in a number of ways, but the main area has been in something that I don’t think we as Westerners “do” particularly well: hospitality.
The hospitality that these guys demonstrate is so humbling, and incredibly challenging given that I know for a fact that they have significantly less than myself. An asylum seeker, such as my close friend Osman, is given just £36.95 for their food each week, and yet every time I go to his house he will cook us a huge meal – even if I was only popping in for a cuppa! He doesn’t do it for any reason other than that he, as a Muslim, sees it as a joy and privilege to love his neighbour as himself, and this – as well as teaching me some Arabic! – is a way to do this.
The community spirit of these guys is also incredibly challenging in our individualistic Western society. If I was to turn up at one of their homes totally unannounced, not only would I be welcomed in and given a meal, but there would certainly be at least 3 or 4 others there. They seem to have a real open-door culture in Sudan, and they have (thankfully!) brought this with them to the UK. It doesn’t matter who you are – whether you’re British or Sudanese, Muslim or Christian – you will be welcomed without any prior invitation, and treated like a brother.
In Acts 2, Luke recalls that the first Christians “were together and had everything in common…they broke bread in their homes, and ate together with glad hearts.” When I first read this passage, I thought ‘well, this is nice, but sadly very unrealistic – Luke must have been glamorising their community spirit somewhat.’ Now, because of the love and warmth of the Coventry Sudanese community towards me, I can see (for the second time in this post!) that I was wrong.
Far from being an unrealistic utopia, this type of community can be found right here in our city, and Ellen and I have been inspired to try to open our home in a similar way. We fall well short of the standards of my Sudanese friends, but we’re slowly trying to change. Jesus has truly used my friendship with these guys to make me a better person, and I hope that, through our football and English classes, I’ve helped them to feel more at-home here.