Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Reflection on the departure of Alain Kimolo Kikeni

Sunday 5th November 2006
Alain Kimolo arrived in this parish four years ago. He was an asylum seeker, come here from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he had been arrested, imprisoned and severely beaten for his involvement with a political party which was working for democracy in his country. He managed to escape and eventually arrived in England and was directed to stay in Bolton while his appeal for asylum was considered. A devout Catholic and former seminarian, he very quickly became a much loved and respected member of this community. Despite campaigns and appeals, his request for asylum has been rejected and now he has received final removal instructions.

For Alain it seems that his time with us is ended. This country will get rid of him on Thursday and leave him to his fate. This country did not believe his story - despite the written supportive testimony of authoritative officials in Congo. This country does not believe he is in any danger on being returned - despite contrary reports from various international bodies and our own Foreign Office. This country is satisfied that his human rights will be respected - despite our lack of a monitoring system.

So, in our name, Alain returns to Congo and does so at a time of particular tension. The process of electing a President grinds on slowly and the atmosphere is heated. Votes were cast last month but it will be about 19th November before the result is announced. Meanwhile previously warring parties are trying to keep their private armies at peace.

It is against this background that we listen today to the words of our Lord - to love God above all things, and to love our neighbour as ourself. But we may well ask, precisely in these concrete circumstances, 'What does it mean: to love God above all things?' Jesus reminds us that it is not those who simply say Lord, Lord, who will be saved, but those who do the will of his Father. And he taught us to pray to the Father 'may your kingdom come, may your will be done', just as he himself would pray the night before he died.

But what is the Father's will? What does God want of us? Perhaps it will help to ask: What is the creative purpose of God? It is that the entire human race, created in the image of God, Father-Son-Spirit, should grow in communion, to be united in peace and harmony, founded on truth and justice, filled with love and mutual acceptance and respect. It seems idealistic. It seems unrealistic. Yet that is the vision Jesus presents to us. The neighbour you are to love is everyone, the other person in your own family, your neighbourhood, place of work or leisure, or some unknown person on the other side of the world, even, Jesus says, your enemies.

In the time he spent with us Alain has experienced that love. He has written a farewell letter in which he thanks you all for that, quoting the words of Jesus given in St, Matthew's Gospel: 'I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me to drink; a stranger and you welcomed me; unclothed and you clothed me; I was sick and in prison and you visited me.' These were direct, practical expressions of love for someone in need.

But what now? How do we continue to express love for someone we cannot reach? And what about those many, many, many others like Alain? People who have honestly sought asylum from danger, and who are now held in meaningless detention, waiting in fear for their own removal orders? How do we, how can we love them? Is there nothing we can do other than pray for them?

Perhaps there is.

Many of you have expressed your surprise and dismay as you have become aware, through knowing Alain, of the ways in which asylum seekers can be treated. Many of you were without any awareness or understanding of the plight of asylum seekers. But now, through Alain, a name and a face have been given to what was previously unknown reality. Now you are informed, but there remain many who are not. You have been given fresh understanding which many fellow citizens do not share. Very many people, aided by certain elements of the press, lump together as one a variety of different categories of people: asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, illegal immigrants, job seekers, potential terrorists, and so on. And as one they are looked upon with suspicion by many. In the name of security and economic well-being 'something should be done' about them; they are not wanted here. Many would be indignant, not about the ways in which Alain has been treated, but that it took so long to send him home.

There is a huge task of combatting ignorance, prejudice and sheer indifference. We have been graced, through Alain's presence among us, with new insight into the plight of those who have fled from danger in their own country, leaving home, family and friends, without money or belongings, even without any documents or proof of identity, to arrive in a strange land whose language they do not speak and whose culture they do not know, there to beg for asylum. Having been thus graced, ought we not now be gracious and share that insight with others?

Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to be 'light to the world'. 'leaven in the lump', 'salt of the earth'. Might it be that he now asks us, in the name of that neighbourly love to which all are called, to make it our business to remain informed in such matters. Might he even be asking some of us to speak and to act on behalf of those who cannot speak or act in their own name?