By some process that none of us understands fully, 2016 has become a year of anger. Anger needs an object. Too often, that object has been the refugee population although there have been alarming reports of hateful behavior, even including personal attacks, on other migrants from both Eastern Europe and from further afield.
Whether this resentment was latent—and is only now uncontained because of the year’s remarkable political developments—is hard to say. What we do know is this: Some of us feel, somehow, permission to say and do hateful things that hitherto would have been heard only from a bigoted minority and frowned upon by decent civilized society, and a lot of these misanthropic behaviors have found a ready home on the internet.
The disturbing upsurge of xenophobic and hate-filled public conduct seen in recent months in the United Kingdom requires an urgent response from people of faith. We have just seen such a response here in London. Although largely ignored by the mainstream media, it could not have come soon enough.
London’s diversity and social cohesion has been an encouraging feature of life in the capital, but it has been under pressure in recent months. There is excellent and unsung community work happening in London’s various faith communities and churches. Particularly in these days before Christmas, faith groups will use the hashtag #LondonUnited to share stories of community cohesion, thus responding to threats to the capital’s diversity.
#LondonUnited aims to foreground this partiality towards those on the margins by encouraging those who serve and support them to make their work known by reclaiming digital territory captured by the racists and bigots. #LondonUnited is a timely intervention on the part of many faith leaders, including the Jesuit Refugee Service. The gathering of leaders held to launch this campaign has already become known as the St. Nicholas Day Initiative.
At its launch, Roman Catholic leader Cardinal Vincent Nichols said, “[We] have a great tradition of welcome in London. The rich diversity of our parishes, schools and neighborhoods offers a testament to this tradition. As Christians, we are called to extend the hand of friendship and support to the those who are most in need. It is in recognizing and promoting the inherent dignity of every person that we build a strong society and remain true to our British values.”
Echoing this sentiment, the initiative’s participants agreed also to reach out to London's other religious communities so that the campaign might become truly an interfaith initiative representative of all those who live in the capital. The Anglican Bishop of London, The Right Rev. Richard Chartres, who chairs London Church Leaders, said: “As a great world-in-a-city, London must be a beacon for the uniting of neighbours across all barriers.”.
Among those invited to speak at the launch was Sarah Teather, Director of the J.R.S. here in London. Asked about her contribution to this campaign, she told America, "It was a great privilege to address senior church leaders about J.R.S-U.K.'s work with refugees this week and wonderful to have the group's support for our work with those made destitute and detained by the asylum process who are some of the most marginalised and excluded of people in Britain today. Media reports and government policy are increasingly hostile towards welcoming asylum seekers and refugees. But on the ground, churches and Christian organizations continue work with others of all faiths and none to create communities of hospitality and generosity.
“#LondonUnited is about communicating that to others, and standing up to racism and intolerance. Our work at JRS supporting refugees is in many ways counter-cultural to the prevailing political wind both in the [United Kingdom] and internationally, but the joy we find in accompanying, serving and advocating for refugees is a reassurance that we are where God wants us to be.”
A feature of our times has been how social media has come to play such a big part in spreading prejudice and hate. The technology has run far ahead of our ability to develop new social norms and standards of decency so, for now at least, we have a situation where you can say anything you like on any digital platform, no matter how vile or racist; there are few if any rules or guidelines. Therefore it is entirely apt that the leaders of #LondonUnited chose the new digital media to begin this welcome effort.
Attendees at the initiative’s launch heard of another effort, to be known as Capital Mass, which aims to provide temporary housing for those homeless and destitute individuals and families seeking asylum in the city. Like #LondonUnited, it has the full support and cooperation of the office of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has made numerous significant interventions in support of inclusion and social cohesion since his election earlier this year.
And in the Third week of Advent, a protest convened by Westminster Abbey, adjacent to Parliament Square itself, called on the government of Prime Minister Theresa May to keep its promise to bring at least 1,000 refugee children into the United Kingdom by Christmas. Almost 2,000 unaccompanied children, evicted when the Calais “Jungle” camp was recently demolished, remain vulnerable and destitute in France, despite the government’s promise to welcome them here.
There’s a hashtag for this, too—#NotForgotten. These young refugees have not been completely overlooked, neither has our capital’s diversity and inclusivity. We can pray—and act—in Advent that exclusion driven by hatred will not win the day.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.