I am a new Columban lay missionary commencing my first term assignment in the region of Britain. Together with my companion, Ling, we arrived here in Birmingham on September 4, 2020. Straight away we entered into a fourteen-day quarantine in compliance with the country’s coronavirus pandemic safety measures.
I was excited about my first mission assignment. However, with the coronavirus pandemic getting in the way, I paused. People would ask me, “Why bother going there when cases are so high? What are you going to contribute over there? Please, you don’t want to add on to their problems already! Can’t you request to be sent to another country that is safer?” These are valid questions, and I needed to ask myself the same questions and yet I had no answers. But, by God’s grace, my will to move forward came to light and peace through prayers of my family, friends, fellow Columbans and lay missionaries around the world.
Traveling from New Zealand to London had been exceptionally smooth despite the hassle of having to wear a mask at all times, washing our hands constantly and of course keeping social distancing. Nevertheless, our exhaustion vanished when we were met with the warmest welcome given by the Columbans here in Birmingham. Over the quarantine period, we kept close contact with the lay missionaries, and our daily needs were always met. I was able to rest and lived out the quarantine time in quietness and prayer. In a way, it became a silent retreat which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Now that I am in orientation, going out to the streets exploring and discovering the newness and the way of life of the locals, breathing fresh air, meeting people of different ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures is fascinating. Despite the excitement, I am discovering, on the one hand, a vibrantly rich and diversified city Birmingham is offering, but on the other hand I see poverty.
According to recent statistics, 1 in 119 people are without a home in Birmingham alone, an astonishing figure. The refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless and the destitute are also part of that reality. While in the Philippines, I have seen beggars, children and families living in the streets, but I could never quite associate it with a western country such as Britain. That leads me to search for a meaningful purpose for coming here.
During one of our immersion programs with the Birmingham charity “Let’s feed Brum,” I had my very first encounter with the homeless, serving them breakfast one Tuesday morning. We served coffee, tea, porridge, snacks and fruits. Many came and would politely queue up for food. They would then find a place to quietly sit down and have their breakfast. It was like a social gathering for them, and for us too. It was a nice autumn day, and I enjoyed serving and listening to them. In my mind I couldn’t help wondering what brought them to this situation? “One of them used to be a professor at the university,” explained one of the lay missionaries. “Something happened and he lost his job and became homeless overnight.” This is just one tragic story out of so many.
Behind the face of every homeless person has to be a traumatic, life changing event. They have been through much suffering in life and they are just people like us. As Jesus explains in Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Is this not what Jesus wants from us? That we support and be in solidarity with one another, especially with the poor, the vulnerable, the rejected, the abandoned, the unwanted?
Columban lay missionary Sophia Chee Tzu Ting lives and works in Britain.