Jeremy Fletcher, vicar at Hampstead Parish Church, was the lead sponsor for a Community Sponsorship group who welcomed a Syrian family to the UK in 2018. I sat down with Jeremy to ask him about their experience of Community Sponsorship as a parish.

What led you to become involved in the first place in the Community Sponsorship Scheme?

Hamstead parish church has always had a major focus on social justice. So as a church it was actively looking for things to support in practical ways. There has always been a principled engagement with different agencies, projects, and things like that. The idea of Community Sponsorship was put to me, or put to us really, so it wasn’t something that I came in and said we should be doing, it was a way to serve. No one had experience of Community Sponsorship before, so in terms of how it operated, it was brand new to us.

And from a faith perspective, why would you say that supporting refugees is important?

Welcome the stranger. Something I found, coming from ministry elsewhere, is that the visible presence of the stranger in London is so obvious, that you’ve got to do something about it.

And did you partner with any other organisations?

Yes, we hoisted a flag and asked two other churches and groups if they were interested, and Churches Together in Hampstead got involved very quickly. Hampstead Parish Church has been in a member of Citizens UK for a long time, and we had initial good, and helpful advice through Citizens UK and the refugee part of that network.

We had an evening where we launched our intention to do Community Sponsorship and 200 people came, including all sorts of people who came who we hadn’t met before, and Syrian groups who are already here, as well as our local MP.

At this meeting somebody came who we’d not met, and said they were able to let out a flat at housing benefit rate. One of the key challenges for groups has been securing accommodation, and so with that offer, things were then able to move very quickly.

Our church is in a fairly affluent area, so we knew that round here money wouldn’t be an issue, so the raising of the necessary funds was not a problem. But we knew that accommodation would be a challenge, so that was a that was an absolute blessing that they rocked up and did that.

Who was the lead sponsor for your group?

I became the lead sponsor, because we rapidly recognised that forming a new charity would be quite complicated. We got agreement quickly from our PCC to become the umbrella charity, with its existing charity status, and we then worked under this umbrella together with Churches Together in Hampstead.

How long did it take then before you were able to welcome a family?

So, from that launch to welcoming the family was not many months, because the family who we have welcomed had have been here 3 years- we just had a third birthday party for them.

What do you feel have been the most significant activities in helping the family settle in the UK?

Language and employment. The family arrived with very little English and there has been a need, which is ongoing, for additional support over and above the standard ESOL provision.

What do you think have been some of the key benefits for the host community in providing the support?

For me, it’s given a focus to a desire and a commitment that we already had as a church. So that there is flesh on the bones of a commitment to welcome the stranger, to live out the life of service. There’s a kind of incarnation to the commitment.

It also enabled people to feel that they are doing something, about something that otherwise you can just be agonising about. We’re working, intensely hard with people, and it takes a long time. There are hours and hours going into learning what it is to be a human being in a new country.

I think it also continues to keep the Syrian situation visible, when in many settings, and in the news media the story moves on.

What key lessons would you share with another church interested in taking part in the Community Sponsorship Scheme?

Sharing it with others. Being broadly based as a group, because people are integrating into a community, not just coming into the church. We’ve benefited from a much wider group involved in Community Sponsorship, and also from the involvement of Muslims. So churches would need to work out what their attitude was in terms of engagement with other faiths. It’s also been important not to demand any church involvement from the family.

Also, that there may well be a need for support beyond the formal period of Community Sponsorship. We found this particularly around the language learning side. There was a point quite a long time ago when our formal involvement could have ceased, but our personal and relational involvement continues.

What would you say to churches to encourage them to get involved in the Community Sponsorship Scheme?

I think it is the fact that the world comes to you, and you cannot but be caught up with the politics, and the history, and the inhumanity of things.

And that there is a very practical way of making a small difference. I mean in numerical terms, it’s an enormous number of hours for one group of four or five people. But there is a ripple effect, in terms of differences being made to their community, and to their networks, and relationships as well. So, I think it’s deeply humbling, and is an opportunity to learn an enormous amount.

If there is a patronising and benevolent way of doing charity, then Community Sponsorship completely wipes that out. It’s eye opening, and it’s active practical service/ mission. It makes you think about what mission, service and evangelism are, because absolutely none of this for us has been about calling people to conversion. And it’s been everything about offering a hand of friendship and hope. One learns very quickly that it becomes something much deeper, about relationship.