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Melissa in UK - Walker

Reflections on community in diversity

I think something that characterized my year in England was touched on by the Pentecost reading where the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to speak in different languages, so that the diverse members of the crowd were unified in their understanding of God’s message of love.  The diverse crowd reminded me of Walker, the neighborhood in Newcastle in which Abby, Laura, and I lived and worked in 2010-11. Walker is one of the lowest income wards in the country where few students go on to college, and there is a large population of traditionally marginalized people such as asylum seekers, drug addicts, and those on benefits. All these people are mixed in with locals, whose families have been in the area for generations, dating back to the days of the shipbuilding industry. There are very visible differences in culture, social status, and language. Yet despite all this, Walker has developed this rough-around-the-edges sense of community, made possible by a common, unspoken language of brotherly love. The sense of community in the midst of extraordinary diversity truly reflects a Holy presence and I was fortunate enough to experience this sense of community on so many levels.

Kids Kabin was our main placement and was started by a sister of the Religious of the Assumption when she realized that the children in Walker were getting into trouble because they had no positive outlet for their energy.  What started off in 1994 as a 3 room shop has since developed into a building with space for cooking, gardening, woodwork, glasswork, bike repairs, and more. As impressive as this is, Kids Kabin’s work extends far beyond its walls, with outreach sessions in nearby schools, at community centers, and in streets of the surrounding neighborhoods, all for the sake of offering kids positive ways to spend their time. While the kids we worked with at our permanent location tried our patience on pretty much a daily basis, it was clear they appreciated our presence in the neighborhood. In the evenings we would attach various trailers carrying stoves, pottery wheels, and bike repair tools to the back of our bikes. We’d peddle a mile or two to our destination, collecting children along the way. They’d jump on their bikes and follow us, wave to us while walking their dogs, and introduce us to their parents. We were often the only non-Geordies they knew, and though our conversations weren’t exactly substantive, we did enjoy the open cross-cultural dialogue we exchanged. The children taught us where not to go after dark, where to get the best fish and chips, and far too much about Justin Bieber. After letting them believe that we lived next door to 50 Cent, and that Facebook did not exist in America, we eventually explained to them that we were all more similar than we were different; they came to see we shared similar aspirations.

The cross-cultural dialogue at my other placement, Common Ground, was decidedly more serious. Common Ground is a drop-in center for asylum seekers who are waiting to hear whether or not their claims to remain in the UK have been granted. Our clients came from all over: China, Cameroon, Kurdistan, Sudan, Iraq, Russia, and so on.  While Common Ground’s services ranged from assistance filing appeals to the provision of clothing, perhaps its most important function was to serve as a place where clients could have what might be their only human interaction all day. As asylum seekers were not permitted to work and thus did not have excess income with which to occupy their time, it wasn’t uncommon for them to walk 3-4 miles each day just to have a cup of tea and conversation. It was here that contemporary global issues came to life for me. The pictures I’d seen in the news of Libyans and Zimbabweans suddenly weren’t so far from home; in fact, the consequences were in front of me. I heard many stories, and while they were usually difficult to hear, it was inspiring to hear of our clients’ ability to forgive but not forget. The time we spent here was important in that it clarified misconceptions on both sides of the conversation. I remember speaking to a Palestinian man who was genuinely surprised to hear that I was an American who didn’t like war and that I didn’t have guns at home, and I think that shattering these stereotypes is the first step to promoting greater understanding between cultures.

Beyond our placements, the wider community welcomed everyone to community events regardless of nationality, religion, etc. At festivals the entire community would come out, including kids from Kids Kabin, kids from our outreach events, asylum seekers, local parishioners, and so on. We were happy to serve as the link between different groups in the community. The community as a whole bent over backwards to make everyone, ourselves included, feel welcome. Their gestures of kindness made me realize how small actions can make such a big difference in the lives of individuals. From all of this I was continually reminded that despite all of our differences, like that of the crowd in the Pentecost reading, we are ultimately part of a larger family, one that transcends all borders and identifications.