Sunday Assembly, 13th September 2015
With Open Arms
Oxford is continually benefiting from a steady flow of people from all over the world, and this Sunday Assembly was designed to celebrate the richness they bring to our community. With the refugee crisis dominating the news headlines, we focused on the urgent issue of welcoming and caring for refugees.
Our host was Fridolin Wild, a lecturer from the Open University who was born and raised in Germany. He explained that this service featured contributions of fact (the main talk), fiction (readings and poetry), and experience (the personal testimony of ‘This Much I Know’).
After our animated rendition of Billy Ocean’s anthemic “When The Going Gets Tough”, he introduced the main speaker: Kate Smart – the Director of Asylum Welcome, a refugee charity based in Oxford. Kate’s descriptions of the challenges faced by asylum seekers made us all acutely aware of the pressing need to help people who have been chased out of their own countries for reasons beyond their control.
Following Barbara Hudson’s sensitive reading of WH Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”, John Webster treated us to a timely rendition of his own folk song “The Ballad of Sam Bamford”, accompanied by Oli on guitar. The lyrics emphasised the need to help lonely travellers who are surrounded by strangers and have no place to call their own. Then everyone joined in with singing the Wings song “Let ‘Em In” – a number 2 hit in 1976 which has acquired a new relevance today.
The journalist Maria Spirova outlined her personal experience of liberation from oppression in Bulgaria, where not long ago people could be shot for attempting to cross the border. As with others who have escaped oppressive regimes, she remains acutely conscious of the plight of refugees. Recently she was on-board the Eurostar train which was held up for hours by a siege from migrants desperate to escape the harsh conditions of the camp at Calais, and she described the spectrum of reactions from other passengers, from self-interested annoyance to humanitarian empathy. Her vivid descriptions of the perils, discomfort and prejudice faced by migrants and asylum seekers brought the current situation in Europe into sharp focus. It was a deeply affecting portrayal of a growing humanitarian crisis.
After hearing about the agony and despair of persecuted refugees, the mood in the hall was appropriately sombre. But we must be reminded that we are not powerless to help: the solution is to welcome people with open arms. The song “Consider Yourself!” from the musical Oliver! captured the joys of new-found camaradarie. During the refreshments, the organisers announced that this month’s collection would be donated to Asylum Welcome and Cal-Aid.