LEICESTER, United Kingdom – For refugees, the Gospel account of the flight into Egypt holds special significance: The Holy Family left their home to escape Herod’s edict to kill the male children of Bethlehem.
On Dec 30, the scriptural account of the story will be the basis of a choral service airing on BBC Radio 4 in Britain involving the JRS UK Refugee Gospel Choir.
The Jesuit Refugee Service works to uphold the living conditions and dignity of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as advocating for a more “values-based approach” to the UK’s refugee and asylum society.
Every week, the BBC airs Sunday Worship, which features services from different churches around the United Kingdom. The Dec. 30 program was recorded on Dec. 11 at London’s Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street, which is under the care of the Jesuit order.
“In this service we reflect on the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, a story that resonates strongly with the story of many refugees we accompany at JRS,” said Sarah Teather, the Director of JRS UK.
“The flight to Egypt is a difficult scripture passage full of suffering and injustice. Spending time pondering the resonances between the passage and the lives of those who experience exile today can help bring a fresh perspective. We find spending time alongside refugees helps us see that even in the darkest of times there is hope, as God is with us,” she told Crux.
The JRS UK Refugee Gospel Choir sings with the Soul Sanctuary gospel choir, which sings gospel music in Catholic and Anglican churches.
The service at the Farm Street church was led by Jesuit Father Dominic Robinson.
“This Christmas we are witness to Christ who was born vulnerable, helpless and forced to flee: Christ who was a refugee. In this service we are reminded of Christ’s presence in all our refugee sisters and brothers and the need to offer them welcome this Christmas,” he told Crux.
JRS UK has raised concerns several times this year about the British government’s treatment of asylum seekers.
The UK is the only European country that has no time limit on detaining asylum seekers, and JRS has argued asylum claims are assessed looking for reasons to refuse the application, as opposed to making a neutral assessment.
In October, JRS UK issued a report showing victims of human trafficking are also being held in indefinite detention by the British government, in violation of UK policy.
Teather said the choral service reflects on the experience of the refugees and asylum seekers accompanied by JRS in the UK and the parallels between their lives and the travails of the Holy Family.
“We wanted the BBC broadcast to be shaped by and involve the refugees whose lives and experiences have shaped our perspective on the Gospel story of the flight to Egypt,” she said.
“Our experience of accompanying refugees at JRS is that even in great difficulty God seems very present. We wanted to draw out these often-surprising themes of hope and joy in suffering which are also found in the Gospel passage,” she continued.
Teather said this joy could be seen “on the faces of the refugees singing in the choir.”
Han is a refugee who sang during the service. He told Crux that participating in the recording was “very moving and touching on a personal level.”
“I think the boldness of the spirit and the unyielding courage of refugees in facing the trials and tribulations in foreign countries and their pursuit to secure their life with hope and faith in God could inspire and touch the hearts of many. By giving me an opportunity, JRS is reviving the hope and lives of many forgotten people by the system,” he said.
The Farm Street church has long been a focal point for refugee advocacy and has even organized pilgrimages along the ‘Camino Ignaciano’ – following the route that St. Ignatius of Loyola walked in Spain from the Shrine of St Peter Claver in Verdù across Catalunya to the Abbey of Montserrat and Manresa – to raise money for JRS.
Robinson said helping refugees and raising awareness of the issues facing asylum seekers is putting the Catholic faith into action.
“As Christians we are called to follow the example of Christ in reaching out and welcoming the stranger, those pushed to the edges of our society. In opening our hearts to those that many turn away, we open ourselves to Christ, who was himself pushed away,” the Jesuit priest said.