About 18 months ago, after leaving the parish of St. Catherine’s, I felt called to go and explore opportunities of volunteering with groups which are responding to the various needs of the communities in Birmingham, England, and in particular in the Saltley, Alum Rock area of East Birmingham. One of the first places I visited was an Anglican Community, of Sisters of St. John the Divine (of the television series Midwives). At the time I visited them, they were in the process of selling their convent to an organization called Interserve, which was founded in 1852 by aristocratic women in London. They were deeply concerned by the social conditions of the poorest women in what was then referred to as the Indian sub-continent. Now, they hope St. John’s will be a place of innovation in Christian/Muslim relations, (70% of population in Saltley and Alun Rock is Muslim) where all faiths can reflect and interact.
One of the groups who use St. John’s and with whom I’m volunteering with is East Birmingham sex worker support group. Prostitution and human trafficking is very prevalent in the area. This group supports Streetwatch founded by Javid Iqbal, a Muslim, who with a team of volunteers patrol the area to deter sex buyers and criminal activity and to build relationships and help the sex workers. They have linked up with Christian Group Anawim (founded by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity some 30 year ago) who have offered to share with Streetwatch their years of very valuable experience and access to other services and training. A group of six volunteer women - who are less threatening and who can build relationships more quickly with the female sex workers – and are accompanied, at a distance by a number of men volunteers (for their protection/support), patrol the streets from 10pm -1am on Thursday through Sunday nights.
Another related group, Homeless Heroes also founded by Javid Iqbal provides, cooks and distributes, with the help of about 15 volunteers, a hot meal every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for about two hours. I myself go every Friday night, on the invitation of Javid, to talk and listen to the stories of some of the over 100 men, women and children of different cultures and faiths who turn up for a hot meal. For me it is an opportunity to listen and have a conversation. I find that many of them love to have a chat and share something of their life and how they came to be on the streets.
I find my participation in both these groups very helpful to me as a Columban priest. It helps me to vision a future for the mission of the Church – crossing boundaries to learn to be at home with the vulnerable and the stranger. Javis’s example, as a Muslim serving the people on the edge of society, is also very inspiring to me.
Columban Fr. Ray Collier lives and works in Britain.