It is little wonder that things concerning asylum seekers has been on my mind lately. Naturally, these things are almost always on my mind, given then context in which we operate. But they are always a little more at the forefront when the news conspires to bring them to everybody else’s mind too.
One aspect of our work with asylum seekers is the need to go an attend tribunal hearings. The pastor is usually called upon to act as an ‘expert witness’ concerning the genuineness of faith in the appellant. The whole thing is ridiculous in many ways. Since when did the Ayatollah or the Taliban care about whether you faith was genuine or not? They care only that you aren’t following their particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, irrespective of how good your grasp of Christian theology might be.
Of course, this raises something of a problem when the ground of welcoming asylum seekers who claim to have converted to Christianity is that their faith is genuine. If we are asked, which we often are, ‘are you convinced this person is a genuine believer in Jesus Christ?’ Very often, the answer is ‘no’. Not because we think they are lying (though, sometimes this is sadly the case) but because there is a difference between someone cynically claiming to be a Christian for the purposes of their asylum claim and somebody genuinely believing they are a Christian when, in point of fact, they have not yet understood the gospel and cannot be. The latter is no statement about how genuine the person is, but an honest answer to the question: ‘is this person a Christian?’
Unfortunately, our system isn’t set up to deal with such nuance and the regimes they flee are not overly bothered by them. A far better question is not, ‘is this person a genuine Christian?’ but ‘has this person genuinely left Islam?’ There is plenty of evidence to provide for the latter. Their lack of mosque attendance, their willingness to come frequently to church, their total lack of concern regarding halal food law or set times of Islamic prayer all suggest this. On the Islamic points-based system most believe is in operation, these would be particularly poor choices if you still believe in Allah and that Mohammad is his prophet.
More to the point, our court system is set up to deal in evidence. Whilst we gladly support, in lots of different ways, any asylum seekers who come to the church, we can only go to court for those who we are convinced are genuine believers. That is, after all, the only thing the court believe a pastor is qualified to act as any sort of expert in. And so, for us, that means only going to court for church members, because that is how we affirm people are genuine believers; we baptise them and bring them into church membership.
The advantage of this is that we are then able to present some strong evidence to the court. We can point first to our membership process. That involves two separate interviews, possible conversations with the entire membership and a whole church vote. I am able to go to court and say, not just on the view of me as an individual, but representing the settled conviction of over 30 members of our church, that this person is a believer. It also means I can point to different ways this person has served in the ministry of the church, particularly their evangelistic endeavours amongst Muslims who can be hostile to those who have departed from Islam. Hostility is not a basis on which our genuine members will not share the gospel, which naturally makes things tricky for them if they are sent back to a country so hostile to such things that they may be killed.
One fringe benefit of all this is that we are often able to go into the court and present the gospel to tribunal judges and unbelieving lawyers. As the court’s theological knowledge and understanding of church practice is usually woeful, misunderstandings abound. And those misunderstandings give us footholds for the gospel in the middle of the hearing itself. It is our very own equivalent of Paul appealing to the authorities so that he can present his gospel to governors and even Caesar himself.
In one such example, somebody had fled their country because of an affair they had (prior to being a Christian). This carried the death penalty. In court, I was asked if I knew why this person was in the UK. I explained that I did. I was asked by the judge, ‘am I right in thinking that this is also not acceptable within Christianity?’ I affirmed, it was not. He, puzzled, wondered how I could then affirm this person as a genuine believer. It was a fantastic opportunity to explain the gospel centred on grace (which I duly did). This man was a Christian because we believe in grace through faith for repentant sinners. He had repented of, not only that sin, but all of his sin. He now trusted in Christ alone for his salvation. The evidence we laid before the court pointed further to how this man’s repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could rightly be seen as genuine. The Lord opened up a clear door for the gospel in the middle of court.
In another case, I was asked how we judge whether somebody is a Christian. I explained that we look for an understanding of the gospel, a credible profession of faith and then evidence of that faith lived out in practice. That opened the door for me to explain what ‘understanding of the gospel’ looked like. It allowed me to outline, by which I mean share, an example of a credible testimony of faith. Both were opportunities to point to the gospel message and give an example of somebody who had believed it in a way that was evidently credible.
Another time, we were asked by an incredulous judge why we would welcome people into the church who were clearly not believers. I was able to explain that the offer of the gospel is for everyone. We want everyone to hear it and believe it. That somebody isn’t a believer isn’t a reason to turn them away, but all the more reason to encourage them to come and keep hearing so that they might become one. I was able to link this specifically to the gospel message and said to the judge, ‘even you would be welcome!’
I don’t know whether these sorts of exchanges, of which there are many more examples, has led to an influx of asylum tribunal judges into local churches. I haven’t seen any in our church yet, to be honest. But we are called to be ready in season and out of season. These are some of the opportunities that present themselves to us, for the gospel, in serving asylum seekers. We share the gospel in the tribunal and it is heard by the translator – who is almost always a Muslim – by appellant and Home Officer lawyer alike, and also by the tribunal judge. And who am I to sniff at the gospel opportunities the Lord serves up to us on a plate? Of course, we don’t seek to serve our brothers and sisters this way because it brings us a nice opportunity to speak the gospel in court. We do it because it is right. But, if the Lord grants us such opportunities as we do it to his glory, we praise him for it and take them regardless.
Maybe the Lord has given you a unique ministry. Perhaps you have access to places that others don’t. When the Lord opens a door for the gospel, particularly if you are uniquely placed to take it, be bold. ‘In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.’ (1 Peter 3:15).