Katrina and Jonathan Holgate share how they have seen ministry grow up among refugees in Perth, WA. Katrina and Jonathan were formerly at St Alban’s, Highgate, and are now at St Matthew’s, Guildford.
Imagine: You can’t quite hear, you don’t know the geography of where you are living, the rules are all different and seem to be harsh. Living here in Australia, we live with much tacit knowledge. We know how the school system works, how public transport works, where (generally) places are within your city or region. Refugees (and often backpackers) don’t have this tacit knowledge that we all live with not realising what seems obvious.
Jesus taught us the parable of the good Samaritan; Deuteronomy 29:11 says that we can only have a relationship with God if we treat the alien in our camp well; Leviticus 24:22 says we must have the same laws for the alien as we have for ourselves. It seems to us that we are living outside of God’s ordinances when it comes to the way we treat asylum seekers and refugees here in Australia.
In this context, we have been ministering to refugees for several years. God gave us plenty of opportunity to welcome the alien whilst we were at the Parish of St Alban’s Highgate. During ‘mission week’ one of the younger members of the congregation suggested an outreach to some of our local backpackers. We soon discovered the local backpacker hostels were largely populated with refugees. Their most desperate need was to learn and practice English, to develop an understanding of Australian culture and, believe it or not, our colloquialisms.
The outreach to refugees developed into weekly Sunday afternoon English lessons, followed by dinner and games to promote more English being spoken whilst having fun. So great was their desire to learn, integrate and share the news of English being taught, that we had to cap the numbers of those attending each week at one hundred.
Great caution and consideration was always given around confidentiality of those attending, advertising and social media, enabling those who attended to feel they were in a safe environment. On a couple of occasions we were visited by Muslim elders to check out what we were teaching and some attendees were warned off attending, but overall the evenings were well attended, useful and great fun! As many came asking to know more about Jesus (the Messiah) we eventually taught English through the Bible, always with the option of being taught through a secular process; however, we do not recall ever being asked for the secular class.
The refugees and asylum seekers and some of the backpackers (who also attended) were intrigued by what we were doing and why, especially ones from Iran, who wanted to throw off the imposed Muslim religion that, surprisingly, they did not see as being part of their culture. Six months in we were being asked by two of the attendees for a Farsi speaking church service. Initially, we started a Farsi speaking Bible study, using dictionary apps on our phones to help bridge the language gap from English into Farsi when the need arose.
Research shows that best way to hear and to learn is in our mother tongue and six months into our Bible study, one of the attendees heard of a Farsi speaking pastor who had been praying about starting a Farsi speaking church. By the grace of God, with the blessing of the Archbishop and the support of the parish, a Farsi speaking church started on Friday evenings. We learnt to sing in Farsi and to listen to sermons, half in
English and half in Farsi, news spread and we celebrated as more came seeking Christ and some missionaries returning from middle-eastern countries joined to support God’s work here in Perth, which continues in Highgate today.
Relocating in parish ministry, our work with refugees and asylum seekers continues at the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre. For the last two and a half years we have been attending Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre on Friday afternoons to run a Bible study and a Holy Communion service. The detainees love it and at times we have had eighteen men eager for Christian teaching. Security is high and we are not allowed to proselytise, so anyone who attends has chosen to join us, usually at the invitation of another attendee. As you might expect there is a constant flux of people through the detention centre and some go on to other detention centres and sometimes come back.
For the last two years we have had a particular African young man acting as a pastor to the detainees. His knowledge of the Bible is amazing despite the fact that his English is limited, he has learnt to read the Bible in English but cannot read in his mother tongue (Igbo), which is not unusual. Some are released into community, a few maintain contact and join us in our church services on Sunday. God has moved wonderfully in this ministry. We both come out of the service at Yongah Hill inspired by their faith and enthusiasm to celebrate and praise God despite their circumstances.
Throughout all of this God has blessed and inspired us as we have sat through court and tribunal appearances, incredulous as each story unfolds, full of pain and fear, lives lost, family members tortured and individuals disowned due to conversion to Christianity. We have written letters of support and encouraged where we can. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers that we have been privileged to minister the gospel to, have stayed in contact and we use every opportunity to share the gospel along with our tacit knowledge whilst assisting them in negotiating their new environment.