“It was a wonderful event, the highlight of the Christmas season”

Over the Christmas period, Church of England parishes have helped the homeless, the isolated, refugees and vulnerably housed through projects from winter night shelters to buying presents for the children of prisoners and food hampers for families struggling to meet the cost of household bills. In the blog below, three churches and a cathedral describe their experiences hosting large scale Christmas Day lunches and explain how these events have brought communities together.

Lunch for asylum seekers and refugees

Sanctus, a social enterprise based at St Mark’s Church, Stoke-on-Trent, has been hosting a Christmas Day lunch for refugees and asylum seekers over the past four years. This year the event was moved to the local YMCA where there are better kitchen facilities. 

Rev Sally Smith, team vicar of St Mark’s and chief executive of Sanctus, said: “We had originally estimated 200 for the lunch but we knew this figure could grow  – in the end we were amazed when 360 people turned up including more than 70 extra people attending from Longton, a town four miles away from Stoke. We had put out a press release asking for volunteers to help with transport for people travelling in, and movingly, a local taxi firm run by a Muslim family volunteered and spent a large part of Christmas Day bringing passengers to and from the lunch. The YMCA, in addition to providing staff and the venue, also lent us three of their minibuses to pick up passengers in the Hanley area of Stoke. We had around 40 volunteers, including the Bishop of Stafford, Geoff Annas and his wife and members of the Bishop’s staff and the Archdeacon of Stoke on Trent, Matthew Parker and his wife and three children. We have several Syrian families who have been resettled in the area this year and they all came. Charities, churches and other groups in the area donated presents for the children, including St Mark’s in Basford, near Stoke, who traditionally collect gifts at their crib service. Out of 360 people there were more than 100 children present at the lunch and they all received several gifts. There was carol singing, face painting and games for the children – and there was still food left over at the end of the day. It was a fabulous event.”

Christmas dinner prepared by an inter faith group of cooks with food from the Real Junk Food Project

All Hallows, Leeds welcomed 120 guests for Christmas lunch

Rev Heston Groenewald, vicar of All Hallows, said: “We have a weekly ‘Syrian Kitchen’ in our café at All Hallows, and on Christmas Day our Syrian chefs gave us an amazing gift. They joined others in the kitchen to cook an amazing ‘fusion’ feast: traditional Christmas lunch alongside Syrian chicken, vegetables and delicious desserts. It was a marvellously multi-faith affair: for the first hour of the day, Jewish and Muslim cooks outnumbered Christians.

“After morning worship, we set up tables in the church and around 120 guests sat down to eat. Around half were Syrian Muslim friends. Ours is a wonderfully diverse parish, so we were visited by numerous other Muslim friends and neighbours. This included the imams of both local mosques, who brought us their blessing and wished us Happy Christmas. We had an enormous number of gifts donated by guests and by Leeds City Council. Some of these were left over from a party two weeks earlier, celebrating two Syrian friends receiving Leave to Remain. We had more presents than people could open. It was a very, very special day for us.”

Lunch for people alone at Christmas

Liz Bloomer, churchwarden of St Michael and All Angels Church in Stourport, Worcestershire, writes about how the church hosted a dinner for people on their own on Christmas Day.

“We had about 60 people for the lunch with at least 20 people helping out. We extended it this year and took meals to people who were housebound too. People in the town helped us with containers and transport and their generosity was amazing. They really took this event to heart and gave it 100% support. We had a whole team of people ferrying people to and from the meal. Tesco and the Coop provided all the food and accompaniments, including crackers, table cloths and bottles of wine – there was nothing for us to buy, everything was provided for. It was a wonderful occasion, better than last year as we have revamped kitchen facilities with decent ovens and an industrial dishwasher, paid for from fundraising and a loan from Worcester Diocese. We now have such a wonderful community resource with our kitchen that this raises the possibility of further similar events.”

Portsmouth Cathedral hosted a five-course lunch on Christmas Day for 60 people in a joint event with FoodCycle, a charity that creates meals from surplus food.

Canon Peter Leonard, from Portsmouth Cathedral said: “We had 60 people at the lunch, with around 47 guests and the rest volunteers. The guests ranged from elderly people on their own to homeless people and a family with eviction hanging over them. On Christmas Eve we received a vast amount of food from the supermarkets. We had vegetable soup, prepared on Christmas Day morning, followed by turkey, and then fruit crumble for pudding, with coffee, mince pies and chocolates. In addition to the lunch, guests went away with armfuls of food, including vegetables and bread. Parents from a local school had put together a big sack of gifts for the lunch and the guests were given gifts too. During the lunch, we found that one of the guests had been missing hospital appointments that he really needed to make. Five people at the lunch said they would make sure that he got lifts to the hospital to ensure he never misses any more appointments. It was a wonderful event, the highlight of the Christmas season – the generosity at the lunch was incredible. We had so much donated, it was overwhelming. We will make sure we do this again next year.”

We pray for all those affected by the Berlin Christmas market attack

Rev Canon Dr Sarah Hills writes about the close ties between the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, near to the site of the Berlin lorry attack, and Coventry Cathedral.

We are very troubled to hear of the attack close to our friends, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of Berlin. They have been a partner to our community for many years, and we share a long history of rebuilding hope from destruction. In their church hangs a picture drawn during the siege of Stalingrad, of the Madonna and Child, a copy of which is displayed in our cathedral. They gave us this as a symbol of our unity and friendship. In turn, they have a Coventry Cross of Nails in their Sanctuary. We pray for them at this difficult time: for healing of bodies and relationships; for those who have died and those who are bereaved; and for the Church’s ministry of Reconciliation.

In the wake of the attack, my visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in January will take on a new and special significance. This occasion will mark the 30th anniversary of their partnership in the Community of the Cross of Nails, based at Coventry Cathedral, and now, also, the long road we all have to travel to build peace and reconciliation.

The Community of the Cross of Nails was founded in the wake of the Second World War to be a network of partners around the world working for peace and reconciliation in their own contexts. We have over 200 partners across seven continents that join together to work towards three goals: healing the wounds of history; learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity; and building a culture of peace.

In times like these, in the wake of violence and atrocities, the continued commitment of the Community of the Cross of Nails to working and praying for peace and reconciliation is vital. Today we pray with partners around the world for all affected by this terrible incident. As members of the Community of the Cross of Nails we are joined together through the Litany of Reconciliation. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church joins us in praying this daily at midday. Our hearts go out to them all. Father Forgive.

Rev Canon Dr Sarah Hills is Canon for Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral

Helping prisoners to keep in contact with their families over Christmas

Angel Tree, a project run by the Prison Fellowship charity, helps prisoners to maintain their relationship with their families by giving them the chance to choose Christmas presents for their children. The programme will deliver more than 5,000 gifts this Christmas to the children of prisoners in England and Wales.

At St Barnabas in north Finchley, the church’s prisons mission community has overseen the delivery of 260 presents for Angel Tree to be distributed to the children of prisoners in Pentonville, Swaleside, Grendon and Springhill prisons. Forms are distributed in prisons, often through chaplaincies, inviting prisoners, as long as they are allowed access to their children, to request a present worth up to £15 for a child or children. On each form, alongside details of a child’s name, age and gender, there is a space for a message from the prisoner. ‘We have seen forms where they even have the catalogue number from the toy shop – so they have really done their research, or a family has done their research,” said Wendy, who coordinates the work at St Barnabas. “Then there are other families where they know their children a little less well and don’t specify anything.’ At St Barnabas, fundraising starts as soon as the forms are delivered. ‘In order to raise the funds we hold events like coffee mornings, we also approach friends and colleagues and family to ask whether they would like to buy a gift,’ she said. The group meets for a mass present wrapping session before the gifts are dispatched by post. “We wrap the present twice – first of all in Christmas wrapping paper and then in brown paper. Then for each child, unless the application says they don’t want this, we put in a book from the Prison Fellowship. If we know that there is more than one child in a family receiving a gift, we make sure that the presents are all ready before they are sent.’ Feed back forms are sent out with the presents to families with a stamped addressed envelope.  Prisoners who are successful applicants for the scheme are sent a feedback form with a Christmas card letting them know what has been bought and sent. ‘Every year, it is heartbreaking to read some of the remarks,” Wendy said. “One that stays in my mind is a grandmother who was looking after grandchildren both of whose parents were in prison. She said she had struggled on a pension to buy presents for her grandchildren and she really appreciated the programme.”

Martha Linden, CofE communications department

There are around 200,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison. To find out more about Angel Tree see http://www.prisonfellowship.org.uk/what-we-do/angel-tree/

How inter faith groups are helping refugees, the vulnerable and the isolated over Christmas

Muslim groups in London were in the news this week for donating 10 tonnes of food to help feed the homeless at Christmas in centres organised by the charity Crisis. Here we examine how the faith communities, including Christians and Muslims, are working together over the Christmas period to provide meals and hampers to groups including refugees, the isolated and the elderly and vulnerable. 

Christmas dinner organised by Muslim charities

Muslim charities in Bradford are brightening up Christmas for lonely Christians and being helped by the Bishop of Bradford, the Right Revd Toby Howarth, writes Chris Tate, Director of Communications for Leeds Diocese.

A free Christmas Dinner is being offered to elderly Christians who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day, said Sofia Buncy, northern community development officer for the charity Muslim Hands.

”The day consists of carol singing, a Christmas meal and seasonal fun at Bradford’s Khidmat centre, where we will be joined by the Bishop of Bradford, Toby Howarth and his family, representatives from the Sikh and Hindu community and of course Khidmat centre volunteers,” she said.

“Christmas is a special time for everyone and it’s awful to think people might be alone.

“And in Bradford the faith communities really do support and help each other  – all the time and with a humbleness.”

In a separate initiative, Christmas hampers are being sent out to refugee and asylum seeker families, so they can have a family meal together with dignity in their homes.

Bishop Toby said he was looking forward to lending a hand in another example of multi-faith co-operation in Bradford.

“There are so many people joining together, simply to do some good in this city and beyond,” he said.

Christmas dinner prepared by an inter faith group of cooks

Every Christmas, the table at All Hallows Leeds groans with food saved from landfill by the Real Junk Food Project or simply left on the vicarage doorstep, like the two ready prepared ducks last Christmas Eve, as if Father Christmas himself had visited.

For there is a touch of magic at work here in this inner city Leeds church. To the outside, they might appear a haphazard group of people thrust together by circumstance and proximity, but look closer and there is deep seated friendship and love. These are refugees from Iran, North Africa, Saudia Arabia and the Mediterranean; students, some Hindus and vulnerable and disadvantaged local people all living alongside the established Muslim community of Hyde Park including  the Syrian community of Leeds.

Some found their way here looking for a conversation class to improve their English, others because they knew they could get a decent meal five days a week in exchange for washing up in the community cafe or a spot of gardening.

There was a big impromptu party last week when news that two members of the church family– one Syrian Muslim, one Saudi Arabian Muslim – had finally been granted Leave to Remain after a long ten year campaign. While local people packed into the church to celebrate this joy, many others still wait to hear their future. Joy and sorrow are close bedfellows at All Hallows.

And on Christmas Day morning, while the church celebrates the birth of Jesus, Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends will be hard at work together in the kitchen chopping and preparing the lunch. For this most special day in the Christian calendar is a day for community, when ten or twelve big tables will be pushed together, 120 chairs nudged up close and the most wonderful feast shared by people from across the miles, across community, across faiths, and across cultures.

Jane Bower is part of the communications team in Leeds Diocese

Christmas hampers for the elderly and vulnerable in Birmingham

In Birmingham people from different faiths across the city regularly come together, motivated by their faith, to care for people who are facing some kind of hardship. In the last few weeks I have been part of  interfaith groups of people have who hosted a party for newly-arrived asylum seekers, taken aid to the ‘jungle’ in Calais, wrapped gifts for refugee families, fund raised for a women’s refuge and this week a group of Christians and Muslims were distributing food hampers to elderly or vulnerable residents in Balsall Heath.

Distribution was sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover and enabled by Balsall Heath Forum, a small organisation that manages to keep in regular contact with the 14,000 people who live in their neighbourhood. As we delivered the parcels we had the chance to chat with people and find out how they were doing. It was clear that behind each door, behind each face, was a world of experience, stories, wisdom and grace.  As one volunteer said during the feedback – we were blessed by the residents, it felt like it was far more beneficial for us than it was for them.

Chatting to the organisers afterwards, their combination of intricate knowledge of their neighbourhood and their deep compassion reminded me of parish life in a small village in the 1980s – when my father was a vicar. While he only had about 1,500 parishoners there was no-one he did not know or nothing that he did not care about. Nowadays the priest looking after those three tiny villages must have another five or six churches in their patch. But knowing people (whether or not they go to church), caring for them in need and enabling others to do the same is still at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England.  And now we have the chance to do it hand in hand with people of different faiths, ethnicities and cultures.

Jessica Foster is a curate at St Peter’s, Hall Green, Birmingham.

‘Winter night shelters change the lives of both guests and volunteers’

Tommy, John, Darren, Ernie, Nigel, and countless others are the people who taught me how to be a priest.  They each slept at the night shelter at St Mary’s Willesden, in north west London, where I served as the curate.  Every night, under the direction of the brilliant Fr Ian Booth, we fed and served up to 40 people, and then gave shelter in the 10th Century building, no questions asked. Then each morning, whilst we sang Morning Prayer, these now rested homeless men would grunt, fart and eventually go on their way into the world, and the beds would be stored away until the next night.  Not glamorous, sometimes backbreaking, but deeply Gospel.

Shelter and food is a basic human need, but so is dignity and love. It was the homeless in Willesden who taught me this.  It was there that I discovered that ministry was very much hands on, active, and sacrificial.

Ministry requires relationships with a great diversity of people, confident in the knowledge that I need you in order that I might be more fully me.  Therefore, I discover more about who I am, made in God’s image, if I dare to serve you. In fact, it feels like you are the ones who are serving me.

This revelation was not unique to Willesden.  I remember helping to bring together the Camden cold weather shelter scheme when I worked in Kings Cross, and also supporting the work of the Hackney Winter Night Shelter while I served as Rector of Hackney. In each place, the lives of both guests and volunteers were changed through the regular encounters.  I remember how Michael, an eight year old boy, would play Scalextrics with the homeless men, as he didn’t have a dad at home, or how Doris would sit with her knitting and gently listen to the stories of those on the streets, indeed she loved the company.  Both providing dignity and love, and both being changed by this encounter.

Housing Justice’s research clearly states the impact of the work of churches and cold weather shelters.  In London 331,071 volunteer hours are spent supporting 1,290 homeless men and women, equating to £4 million of social capital.  These figures are impressive and powerful.  But much more powerful are the stories behind the figures.  The stories of the encounters, the lives that have been changed because of acts of generosity, love and dignity.  Inspired by the fact that God so loved the world that he was generous in Jesus Christ, and we must be generous in return.

I wonder how you will serve this Christmas, as we reflect upon Jesus, a refugee child put in a manger, a place of feeding.  I wonder how you might dare to let the poor and the homeless teach you how to be more fully you?  I wonder how these encounters might help you to flourish.  Perhaps this might be your New Year’s resolution, and one that you might actually keep as the benefits are immense.

Rob Wickham is Bishop of Edmonton and Housing Justice Night Shelter Ambassador.

“Music crosses barriers and brings people together.”

Rev Martin Burrell, chaplain for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma in St Albans Diocese writes about a music project run by Luton Roma Trust

“The children on the music project are drawn from 12 extended Roma families and they meet on Tuesday at a children’s centre in Luton. We have a Roma musician, an accordionist, but the children perform music from all over the world.  We sang at Luton Airport on December 20 and on Friday the families sang at the Sacred Songs event at the Carnival Arts Centre in Luton.

Most of the families come from our two Roma Pentecostal Church in Luton which are supported by Luton Roma Trust. We work in partnership with Worldbeaters Music, a London based group which reaches out to minority ethnic communities and Building Blocks Children’s Centre in Luton. Luton Music Service is providing instruments.

The whole point of Near Neighboursis bringing hard to reach communities together and our plans are to take the children into care homes in Luton to sing to the residents.  I am 65 years old and I will probably be the oldest person that they know. For the old people in the homes, this may be the first time they have met Roma children.  I am a former professional clarinettist, and I know how music crosses barriers and brings people together.

Our aim is to get the older boys to take up a leadership role with the younger children taking part in the project. This project is only a small part of the work that we do in the Luton Roma Trust. The families have little or no English and are often illiterate. Along with my Roma colleague from Bulgaria, we are working to help the families and most of our time and energy goes into helping them find employment and housing.  When the children are engaged in the music, their parents are taught English by a Romanian teacher.”

Luton Roma Trust is currently helping over 500 Roma people, most are from Romania. 

Luton Roma Trust upholds the biblical principle to unequivocally welcome and support every ‘resident alien in our midst’

The music project was funded by Near Neighbours, and Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation London Luton Airport.

The Common Good Fund, a new Church Urban Fund grants fund and an extension of the Near Neighbours programme was launched recently. For more details see https://www.cuf.org.uk/common-good-fund

First multi-faith homeless shelter

Three Church of England parishes are acting as hosts for One Roof Leicester, the country’s first multi faith winter night shelter which opened this week. The shelter – whose funders include Near Neighbours – uses Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu places of worship with the Sikh and Muslim communities helping provide food for homeless guests. More than 200 multi faith volunteers are working to support the shelter. We talk to Rev Helen Hayes, chair of One Roof Leicester, about how the project is community building in Leicester as well as helping the homeless.

Helping people struggling with food bills

Father Neil Walsh, priest-in-charge of St Margaret with St Columba Church in Leytonstone, east London, talks about the popularity of its weekly community “pop up” shop. More than 150 people have used the shop so far, buying up to two bags of supermarket waste food at £1 a bag – with the money used to invest in more goods for the shop such as toiletries. In his interview, Fr Walsh talks about how the shop, set up with support from BASIC Life Charity, is helping people who struggle to afford food bills.

How parishes are volunteering to help refugees, homeless and the isolated on Christmas Day

In an interview with the Radio Times, Prime Minister Theresa May said she would be celebrating Christmas as she has always done for the past 20 years – including paying a visit to a lunch organised by churches in her Maidenhead constituency for the elderly. Here three churches and a cathedral describe similar events they will be hosting on Christmas Day for groups such as rough sleepers, people living in hostels, refugees and asylum seekers and people alone on Christmas Day.

Lunch for rough sleepers and people living in hostels and temporary accommodation

The Church of the Apostles in Miles Platting, Manchester, is inviting up to 150 rough sleepers and people living in hostels and temporary accommodation for Christmas dinner on Christmas Day.

Rev Ellie Trimble, priest-in-charge, writes:  “We have a weekly lunch on Sunday for around 60 to 80 homeless and vulnerably housed people called ‘Food for All’ and Christmas Day this year falls on a Sunday so we decided we would continue with this as normal. FareShare, who distribute good food destined for waste, will be providing the food for us. We have a team of volunteers, some from the congregation and also guests and volunteers coming in as part of the Greater Manchester Winter Night Shelter. We have a new kitchen at the Church of the Apostles, partly funded by the Diocese of Manchester mission development fund and the lottery. This has made catering on this scale much easier and we also have two halls. We received a donation from Kellogg’s to decorate the church hall for the winter night shelter and to pay for activities over Christmas. We’ll have entertainment on Christmas Day – we’ve got a choir booked and we already have 120 presents wrapped for guests. We will be repeating this meal on New Year’s Day as this falls on a Sunday too.”

Lunch for asylum seekers and refugees

Sanctus, a social enterprise based at St Mark’s Church, Stoke on Trent, supporting asylum seekers and refugees, will coordinate lunch for 200 people on Christmas Day.

Rev Sally Smith, team vicar of St Mark’s, and chief executive of Sanctus, said: “We’ve been running the Christmas Day lunch for refugees and asylum seekers over the past four years from the church hall, but this year it will be hosted by the local YMCA, where they have better kitchen facilities. We will have volunteers working on Christmas Day from Sanctus and others, including the chef at the YMCA. The Archdeacon of Stoke on Trent, Matthew Parker and the Bishop of Stafford, Geoff Annas, will also volunteer their help. The local Moat House hotel will donate 50 turkey dinners and YMCA minibuses will be used to transport people to the lunch. For many people attending, it will be the first time that they have celebrated Christmas. For others, it will be the first time they have celebrated Christmas as Christians.”

Lunch for people alone at Christmas

Liz Bloomer, churchwarden of St Michael and All Angels Church in Stourport, Worcestershire, writes about how the church will host a dinner for people on their own on Christmas Day.

“We held our first Christmas Day dinner last year and around 40 people came, including volunteers, many of whom were on their own too. This year, we have had the kitchen in the church hall refurbished and are on course to cater for more people. Tesco is providing most of the food and the Coop is providing everything around it – crackers, mugs, After Eights, and table cloths. Turkeys will be cooked across the town and vegetables prepped on Christmas Eve. Lifts are provided for people coming to the dinner as transport on Christmas Day can be difficult. We have a whole team of people to welcome guests and serve them drinks. It was fabulous last year and the whole town got behind it with volunteers, loans of equipment, and gift donations. It really brought out the kindness of people in Stourport and Kidderminster.”

Portsmouth Cathedral will host a three-course lunch for up to 60 people on Christmas Day in a joint event with FoodCycle, a charity that creates meals from surplus food.

Canon Peter Leonard, from Portsmouth Cathedral, writes: “This will be the first time we have hosted a Christmas Day lunch at the cathedral. We already run a regular Tuesday lunch club for the elderly and we have worked with FoodCycle before. FoodCycle will be providing food donated to them by the local supermarkets and they won’t know what they are getting until 4.00pm on Christmas Eve. A FoodCycle volunteer will make biscuits and package them up as gifts and one of the supermarkets has donated a voucher that will allow us to buy drinks for the guests.  The cathedral volunteers will provide transport and one of the local churches, St Simon’s, is lending its minibus.  The meal is for people who are alone on Christmas Day, or who might otherwise not get a Christmas meal. We are getting a lot of enquiries from a lot of different organisations.”

Christmas with a Twist: Motown Carol Concert

Musician, songwriter and producer Mo Pleasure and Rev Peterson Feital, Missioner to the Creative Industries in London Diocese, talk about the Motown Christmas Concert aimed at raising money for The Haven + London, a charity set up to provide pastoral care for members of the creative industries. Artists appearing at St Giles in the Fields church in London include Aubrey Logan, Richard Hadfield, BB Diamond, and singer Melissa James.