10 January 2009

Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Care and the Stranger in Church

Patrick Comerford


The downturn in the economy has seen a large number of immigrants who came to the Republic of Ireland from Eastern Europe, and who worked here as casual labourers, begin to return home. They will not show up in the unemployment figures, as they rise, and once they’ve gone no-one is going to follow up their needs, pastorally, economically and socially. It will be a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Those who remain may, I fear, face the possibility that as the “real” unemployment figures begin to rise, they will face increasing resentment that will be expressed in racist terms. The jobs that were once despised, and left to Chinese workers who came here on “student” visas, will become attractive to our own teenage and young adult children once again – the late night grill at fillings stations, the cleaning and casual labouring shifts, the stacking and shelving jobs in the middle of the night in supermarkets.

These are major moral issues for the Church today. Any outside observer or commentator looking at the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion over the past 12 months would have thought the only moral issues we have faced are those that dominated the agenda at Gafcon and the Lambeth Conference last summer.

But what about the major moral issues facing us in the Church today when it comes to welcoming the stranger in our midst and providing pastoral care and support for our new immigrants?

The ‘stranger’ in Ireland today

The statistics analysing the 2006 census returns in the Republic of Ireland produced unusual and curious details about the number of Greek Muslims, Chinese travellers, teenage widows and Maltese divorcees living in Ireland.

They help us to realise that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society. We never were a plain, boring, mono-cultural society. We have always been an island that has been diverse and plural because of the people who come to our shores: Celts, Parthalons, Vikings, the Anglo-Normans, both English and French, the Gallowglass and settler Scots, the French from the Middle Ages to the Huguenot refugees.

Who do you think are the single largest identifiable groups of people in the Republic of Ireland on any one day who were not born in the Republic?

Despite the way we compile statistics, the two largest groups on any one day are, firstly, people born in the United Kingdom, and secondly, tourists.

We don’t notice the first group, because many of them were born in Northern Ireland or were born in England of Irish parents, and they speak and look like the vast majority of people here.

The second group we welcome with open arms. They provide us with income and revenue, they are vital to a key sector of the economy.

I never hear anyone complaining in racist terms that the country is being swamped with Italian tourists. But I regularly hear gross exaggerations about the number of Nigerians and Somalis, and there are plenty of urban myths about their religious and social practices, and the benefits they are supposed to receive through the Social Welfare system.

Admittedly, the census statistics are always on the low side when it comes to telling us who is living among us. Too many people are too afraid and too scared to register themselves at census times, worried that once noted they may face discrimination or forced deportation.

When the state discriminates unfairly, those who are racist can feel they have sanction and permission to discriminate without recrimination. If the state says Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work here are second-class citizens of the European Union, then it is selling us all short on the dream of a better Europe. What a disaster ahead of referendum that should bring us closer to the dream of a Europe where all can share in our freedom and prosperity.

In Embracing Difference, which was launched a year ago at the Hard Gospel conference in the Emmaus Centre in Swords, I point out that out of all proportion to their numbers, our new immigrants suffer unfairly:

● A disproportionate number of them are in prison.
● A disproportionate number of them are the victims of crime, violence and road traffic accidents.
● A disproportionate number of them suffer accidents in the workplace.
● A disproportionate number of their children are in hospital.

If the system was fair, the statistics I quote in that book would not have such an appalling consistency.

And the unseen suffering of many of our new immigrants is told in the stories of the mushroom pickers forced to work long hours in appalling conditions, their children left at home without parents, and their economies deprived of skills, their societies deprived of the best and brightest.

Immigrants and the Church of Ireland

But apart from the duty on church members to comfort those who are in fear and to welcome the stranger, it is important in the Church of Ireland that we do not see those who have arrived among us in recent years as problems, either in themselves or in the reaction of some sectors of society and government.

They enrich our society, and they enrich our Church life too.

Too often, even within the Church of Ireland, I hear people suggesting that immigrants are “different from us,” that they go to or ought to go to their own churches. But in fact immigrants have enriched the life of the Church of Ireland.

Today, 2 per cent of the Church of Ireland population in the Republic of Ireland is from an African country, compared with 0.8 per cent of the population as a whole.

The members of the Church of Ireland throughout this state include:

● 1,404 born in Nigeria;
● 1,156 who are Germans;
● 578 from Lithuania;
● 537 South Africans; and
● (as Garrett Casey showed in a recent analysis of those statistics), 77 members of the Church of Ireland who are French nationals.

If Ireland is not monochrome or mono-cultural, then neither is the Church of Ireland.

What beautiful opportunities we face.

What wonderful challenges we must meet.

Already we have one Nigerian priest working in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. But perhaps we might consider whether we should a priest for the Germans, the Lithuanians, or even the Chinese among us. These are challenges for the dioceses and for the mission societies.

The challenge for the parishes is how can we welcome these people among us, and how can we make sure that we fully benefit from these blessings that God is offering us in every parish throughout our land.

Embracing Difference

In Embracing Difference, I have offered parishes the opportunity for parishes to explore those opportunities. The Bible studies and suggestions for action are designed with the ordinary parish and parishioner in mind.

And if the Church of Ireland gets it right in our answer to this challenge and opportunity, if we can develop and ensure right practice, then we will have not only the right, but the duty, to challenge the state about those areas where it remains slow and difficult to deal with.

But rather than smothering ourselves in statistics this morning, I want to draw on two Bible studies that I used in Embracing Difference, and explore what are the implications for our parishes, including Sunday worship, Sunday schools, and parish schools, the opportunities for our dioceses, including plans for ministry and mission, and the opportunities for the Church of Ireland and the whole church on this island.

Bible Study 1:


The Book of Ruth is a compact story of an uprooted family.

Elimelech from Bethlehem and his wife Naomi emigrate to Moab, bringing their two sons with them. Eventually Naomi finds herself a widow in a strange land, and when both her sons die she is left dependent on two foreign daughters-in-law.

One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returns to her own family, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, clings to her mother-in-law, telling Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16).

Naomi and Ruth were destitute when they arrived in Bethlehem. Naomi is known to few people there, and the two widows find themselves poor strangers and exiles in a strange land. The system of gleaning, which allows the poor to garner some food from the corners of the fields at harvest time, allows Ruth to gather food for both of them. And while she is gleaning, she meets Boaz and they marry.

Two women who were exiles and strangers come to a new-found prosperity. Ruth gives birth to a son Obed, who is the grandfather of David, and the ancestor of Jesus. The stranger finds sympathy and love, and the love shown to the stranger becomes a blessing not just for Israel but for the whole world.

Points for discussion:

What issues does the story raise?

Try to imagine the story in today’s setting, with a family leaving Ireland and returning with a “foreign wife” or a family coming here and, beset by tragedy, returning home.

How do we respond those strangers in our midst who come to our doors asking for the gleanings of the field?

How do you feel about the Roma women selling or begging with her children?

What would have happened to God’s plan of salvation if Ruth had decided not to go back to Bethlehem with Naomi, if Boaz had said no to Ruth’s request, if Ruth had never married again?

Bible Study 2:

The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 7-26):

The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period.

Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders.

Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. Jesus tries to break down those barriers.

The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37).

Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

This story in Saint John’s Gospel was the New Testament lectionary reading in the chapel here for Morning Prayer last Monday (5 January 2009).

In this story, the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water.

And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture.

For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately.

Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.

All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent.

Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet.

They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus.

No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.

Points for discussion:

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

If I am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a lecture and seminar on Pastoral Ministry with Year III students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course on 10 January 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The statistics analysing the 2006 census returns in the Republic of Ireland produced unusual and curious details about the number of Greek Muslims..."

Hello. Where can I find more of these statistics on Greek Muslims in Ireland?