As part of their mission, the all-Ireland organisation states that it ‘works to build a culture of welcome, hospitality and inclusiveness right across every sphere and sector of society…’ building a network of groups in towns and cities, which includes community groups churches, schools and universities
Speaking about the award and the congregation’s ongoing ministry in this area, Rev William Hayes, minister of Tullamore Presbyterian Church said, “As a congregation, we have been honoured to be able to welcome people from many places and backgrounds over the years. It is also an honour to be recognised as a Church of Sanctuary for our work with those seeking safety and protection.”
Mr Hayes continued, “Tullamore, like most Irish county towns is an astonishingly diverse place for its size and rural context. An example of that local diversity became very apparent back in 2008 when a discussion with some mums and dads at our parent and toddler group revealed that out of the 44 attendees that day, 22 were of different ethnicities and national groups.
“This has meant that in order to simply be a local church working within our parish we had to learn to be a community that reaches out and provides a welcome space for people of many different nationalities and backgrounds. For the first few years of my ministry here, which began in late 2005, and the ministries of my two predecessors, work amongst ethnic minority communities was simply an extension of our more general work in the local community,” Mr Hayes said.
The work took on a more deliberate character from late 2013 when the church was approached by Offaly County Council to be involved in a refugee resettlement programme for Hazara refugees from Afghanistan. The families had come to Ireland having originally fled to Syria. Mr Hayes explained that the church’s role was to provide a meeting place every Thursday afternoon for the families to come together and meet Irish people from their own neighbourhoods.
At the same time ‘a good neighbour’ programme was started, involving people in the local community who could help and support the refugees in the place where they had been settled. “This resulted in a fascinating mix of people from many different parts of the world meeting together in our building on Thursday afternoons. Once the formal phase of the resettlement programme had finished there was a strong desire among the Afghan community and the people involved to keep the Thursday drop-in going, while expanding it to people of other nationalities. This became, what we rather grandly call, the International Welcome Centre, which has become a place of grace and blessing for people who have made Tullamore their home,” he said.
Along with families from Afghanistan and Syria, people from Russia, China, Iran, Sudan, Brazil, Germany, France, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Italy, India and Turkey find a warm welcome at the centre. “Over the years the character of the work has changed with the Welcome Centre evolving with the different waves of migration that has come through Tullamore. We have, for the most part, been blessed with translators or shared and common languages such as Persian, Russian or Spanish. When someone arrives with no common language then we are very thankful to be living in the era when Google Translate exists!
“As a church, work amongst the refugee, asylum seeker and immigrant community has become a much more intentional activity for us, than simply a by-product of reaching out to the general community, as we are called to do as Christians. Many have also become part of our church community too, worshipping on a Sunday, which is wonderful,” Mr Hayes continued.
Presenting the Church of Sanctuary certificate to Tullamore, Andy Pollak said, "As a board member of Places of Sanctuary Ireland, and somebody with a Czech refugee father and an Irish Presbyterian mother, it is a real joy to be able to present Tullamore Presbyterian Church with this certificate and welcome them into the Sanctuary family.
“This marks only the beginning of their Sanctuary work. There is a huge need for good-hearted people in this country to reach out a hand of friendship and welcome to the poor, lonely, often frightened people from overseas who have come to Ireland seeking work or sanctuary, not least to prevent the kind of fear-inspired far-right reaction that we have seen in few places in Ireland, Britain and other European countries recently.”
Mr Pollak continued, “As Dublin Central Mission, the first Methodist Church of Sanctuary in Ireland said in its pioneering Welcome the Stranger project, ‘We as a church desire to be a place of welcome, love and support to those who have found themselves in our city.’
Thanking him, Mr Hayes concluded by saying, “We welcome this recognition by Places of Sanctuary Ireland, and I am glad to say that we are not alone in the work that we do. While we are the first Presbyterian Church in Ireland to receive this award, there are many congregations in our denomination across Ireland, including PCI’s two International Meeting Points in Belfast, doing similar engaging gospel work in the name of Jesus. I would like to commend my brothers and sisters in Christ across this island, and people of no faith, as together we welcome asylum seekers and refugees to our shores and support them in their time of need.”
Photos: (1) Presenting the certificate of recognition (left to right) Paul Granger one of Tullamore’s elders, Andy Pollak, Places of Sanctuary board member, Rev William Hayes, minister of Tullamore Presbyterian Church with clerk of session, Eleanor Dwane Smyth and fellow elder Keith Serviss (2) Tullamore's parent and toddler group celebrate their seventh birthday in 2016 (3) the logo of the International Welcome Centre and (4) one of the activities at the Centre.