8 June 2009
Address of Bishop Eamonn Walsh at the launch of What the Bible says about the Stranger
Check against delivery
What the Bible says about the Stranger
Launch of revised, expanded edition
Bishop Eamonn Walsh, Chairperson of Irish Bishops’ Council for Immigrants
Vincentian Refugee Centre, Phibsboro’, Dublin 7
A few days ago I noticed the Wet Paint sign on the door of Maynooth Church – it was in three languages – English, Irish and Polish! Just one of the signs, and not all limited to print on paper, of the new times in which we live and of the new people with whom we live.
While the composition of the Irish population was beginning to change in 1999 when the first edition of What the Bible says about the Stranger was published, few of us could have foreseen the changes which have taken place in the past decade. Changes which have resulted in our living in a country where over 160 languages are spoken by people coming from countries as distant from us, and from one another, as Croatia is from China and Estonia from Ecuador.
But the pattern of change in the past ten years has not been along a straight line. At first it was people seeking asylum, people searching for a place of refuge, who made up the majority of newcomers to the country. In a relatively short time, their number was overtaken and far surpassed by people who came here to fill the growing jobs market. And now, for a variety of reasons, some of which are very evident and others much less so, we witness a downward trend in figures of incomers to this country.
If reflection from a Christian faith perspective on living in a multie-thnic, intercultural society was a need in the late nineties, it is an even more urgent challenge as we come to the end of the first decade of a new century. At a time when migration to this country – in all its forms – is no longer in its initial phase, when we in Ireland now have significant experience of inward as opposed to outward migration, what is the vision which is now needed to guide our living together? We know only too well that:
Without a vision, the people perish (Prov 29.18)
As people who live in a common space, how can we share life in a way that contributes to the building up of a community? A space in which each one is valued, not according to external criteria like ethnic origin, language or religious or cultural background but, first and foremost, as a person created in the likeness of God, with the inherent dignity which that confers.
Matching the vision and ideals of individuals with action is a challenge for all regardless of creed. This challenges us to ask are we learning from the dear lessons of the past or are we repeating them in another context? The context for us here is in how we “welcome the stranger”.
While a vital aspect of welcome for the stranger is expressed in the interpersonal sphere, this welcome must be promoted and safeguarded too in the social, public arena. This is the arena of Government policies, procedures and practice. In all that relates to the right to seek asylum, it is essential that as a country we honour our international commitments by translating these into domestic legislation while, at the same time, putting in place effective mechanisms to ensure implementation. Any reference to people seeking asylum as irregular or, worse still, illegal migrants cannot be permitted or tolerated. Similarly, legislation in relation to in-migration, whether it be for work, study, to join one’s family or whatever, must be in line with the relevant international conventions and other agreements to which Ireland is a signatory. In Ireland – as indeed everywhere – immigration policies must be located in a rights framework and be humane, transparent, sustainable and non-discriminatory. And while legislation alone, even when comprehensively implemented, is never sufficient, it is, nonetheless, an essential part of the foundation on which an intercultural society is built.
While Government policies and practice are on the one hand, a reflection – partial, at least – of societal values, on the other, they create and shape values. In forming public opinion through underscoring attitudes and actions that are acceptable – and, by implication, those that are unacceptable – legislation has a key function. This, for example, is why recent changes to the work permit regime raise major concerns. I wish to highlight the requirement that a vacancy must be advertised for two months and no local or European Union applicant found before a work permit application from a non EU candidate can be considered. The condition applies equally to new applicants and to work permit holders already resident here who lose their jobs. Many people and their families who have made Ireland their home will be forced to leave or will have no other choice but to stay and work informally with the potential for exploitation that can accompany such working circumstances. This measure should be reconsidered urgently and not await a possible autumn review.
It is the call to Christian life – indeed, to human life – that What the Bible says about the Stranger addresses from a wide variety of perspectives. Its breaking open of the Scriptures gives us a window into the mind and heart of God, made explicit in so many ways by the words and actions of Jesus. Discussion questions invite us to grapple with the difficult issues, not just intellectually but, more particularly, in a search for life-changing responses. The prayers included in each section, and a new feature of this edition, remind us that welcoming the stranger is, in essence, a task we share with God who is the One who first welcomes each of us and so enables us to welcome one another.
Addressing the profound questions is too deep a task for our heads alone. That is why the wide-ranging and very practical suggestions for dramatisation offered in this publication are invaluable. They offer possibilities for participation, beyond language, age or acting ability, which allow for the involvement of everyone.
At a time of serious cutbacks for several agencies which worked to ensure that the human rights of all who live in Ireland were respected and upheld, not least in relation to racism, the mission of faith communities and of the Christian churches, in particular, is more crucial than ever and more urgent. At this time, in the face of the challenges which we face both globally and nationally, I am delighted to launch this publication. May it be widely distributed and, especially, widely used, and may Wet Paint and every sign in our society, whatever its medium, be in a language that recognises, values and welcomes the Stranger.
And to end
…an old Jewish tale told of the Rabbi and his students. The rabbi asked ‘How can you determine the hour of dawn – when the night ends and the day begins?’ One of the students suggested ‘when, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep’. ‘No’, was the answer of the Rabbi. ‘Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?’ asked the second student. ‘No’, the Rabbi said. ‘Please tell us the answer,’ pleaded the third. ‘It is’, replied the wise teacher, ‘when you look into the face of a stranger and have enough light within you to recognise that person as a sister or brother. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still within you’.
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678