Clare Nutbrown-Hughes is in her third year of training with the United Reformed Church. She spent a year on placement volunteering with Bridges and offered this reflection as she looked back over her year walking alongside staff and volunteers.
As thousands of people came to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth lying in state, I found myself fascinated by the conversations that were surely taking place in the queue.
Waiting for hours and walking for miles, mourners were thrown together with complete strangers bound by a mutual sense of loss and respect. People from different parts of the world and country, of different faiths, ethnicities, ages and socio-economic backgrounds came together and shared this moment in time. For sure, some in the queue would have found this prolonged enforced proximity to a neighbour difficult, and some conversations will have been forgettable and fleeting, maybe even irritating or disappointing. But it’s my hunch that thousands of people will have realised the privilege of being let into someone’s life and feelings, will have heard of new experiences and perspectives and will have been enriched by it. My guess is that those connections will form a critical part of the memory of the occasion.
As I look back on my year-long placement with Bridges for Communities, I give thanks for the privilege I have likewise had to meet with people from wholly different circumstances to my own, to be welcomed, challenged, inspired, humbled and I would say, transformed.
From serving at a Sudanese Peace Feast, to playing catch with a newly-arrived child from Afghanistan, from learning a few phrases of Pashto, to hearing about the motivations of fellow volunteers, from spending an afternoon with resettled Afghan women preparing a traditional meal to break the fast after months of being unable to cook, to walking alongside Ukrainian mums and their children, this has been a year of revelations about the importance of connecting with others beyond our own experience.
I have realised how narrow my perspective on the world is, and deeply appreciated the grace with which others have helped me see the richness and breadth of ways of seeing the world and of living in it.
At the Peace Feast, I was able to experience the joy and celebration of the food, culture and traditions of the Sudanese community. It challenged me to question whether we could celebrate Englishness in the same way? Are we sufficiently aware of our cultural identity? Memories of skinheads in the 1980s expressing their pride in England in a brutal, oppressive and exclusive way has no doubt left me feeling uncomfortable about celebrating national identity. But if we don’t know who we are, we can slip into a mentality of ‘Britain is right and everyone else will get around to our point of view eventually’. Our view of the world becomes confused with THE view of the world and we are impoverished for that. It’s a view that many will understandably associate with Christianity. I realised this year that unless we are secure in our own identity it is harder to embrace others and appreciate them and allow them to change you, to reveal new things to you, to enrich you. Otherness can become threatening.
In a conversation with a young, confident-looking man from Afghanistan with sharp, slicked hair, and wearing Muslim dress, I realised how far off the mark my preconceptions were. I had previously decided to avoid him, having decided that he would not want a white, Western woman to be leading his group to an activity. In a snatched moment as we waited for a bus, he shared how he wished he were in his other clothes, but they were held up in the laundry system at the temporary accommodation where he was staying. In that second of humility from him I realised the error of my own assumptions. He was a young man in limbo, waiting for a new home where he could rebuild his life, feeling awkward in the dress that he rightly assumed would lead me to jump to conclusions. I was mortified, humbled and yet on reflection, deeply grateful for the opportunity to realise how I subconsciously build barriers, not bridges.
Another moment of revelation was when a well-meaning social media post appealing for translators for Ukrainian mums with children needing hospital care, referred to these mums as ‘scared and anxious’. I was part of a small group of Bridges volunteers who spent time with these families in their first days in Bristol and in all honesty, the adjectives I would have chosen to describe them would have been ‘resilient’ and ‘determined’. It brought home to me the power of words to build connection or to put up barriers. While in no way would I wish to minimise the trauma those women and thousands of others are living through, I wondered if ‘sad’ and ‘anxious’ said more about how we are conditioned to see refugees, maybe even how we feel we need to see them? As the year went on, I became reluctant to use the word ‘refugee’ at all when people asked me what I was doing on my placement. It seems to have the propensity to dehumanise by creating a power relationship in which we in Britain have the upper hand, building a one-dimensional picture of people which allows us to feel safe and secure; we are the ones providing sanctuary, not the ones in desperate need. Yes, those Ukrainian mums were no doubt sad and anxious, but they were so much more, and yes, thousands of people are being resettled and seeking asylum in Britain, but they are so much more than their legal status.
As a person of faith, I have been able to see how Islam inspires fellow volunteers and staff to welcome the stranger and build community and have been encouraged by the churches who support Bridges, recognising that loving their neighbour is not restricted to reaching out to people who look like you, sound like you, or worship like you. It has led me to ask questions around whether hospitality in churches is all too often centred around bringing like-minded people together, while in the Bible it is often also around making room for those who are ‘outsiders’. I am grateful for the work of Bridges in living out this profoundly important vocation.
The wonderful thing is that we don’t have to wait for the death of a monarch to say ‘hello’, to explore both common identity and difference. Bridges provides a whole range of ways in which volunteers can be part of building their own community. This year has held so much joy and revelation and inspiration for me and I would encourage anyone to see how they can join in with Bridges’ uplifting work in connecting, supporting and equipping people across Bristol.