‘Faith is less important in our work now’, says refugee charity’s chaplaincy leader

posted : 1st September 2016

Gone are the days when chaplaincy work was about coming along with a holy book and offering to read a few passages with clients, says the chaplaincy leader of a prominent UK-wide refugee charity.

As a result, the inclusion of humanists as part of a multi-faith chaplaincy is a natural evolution of the service, says Rabbi Cliff Cohen, Pastoral Care Co-ordinator for Migrant Help UK, (pictured).

“Faith has become less important. Now it’s about helping clients to recover their self-esteem, helping them realise that they are not as powerless as they thought they were, especially when they are dealing with the trauma of having fled dangerous and chaotic situations in their own countries,” he said.

“I wouldn’t even define it as a faith service anymore. If a client needs to talk to a chaplain of faith then, of course, we can provide that. But things are changing.”

The specially trained pastoral care team from Migrant Help UK – the nation’s largest charity offering advice and support to vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – now features three humanist chaplains alongside representatives from at least 11 major faiths.

But their inclusion is not so much a reflection of the changing religious beliefs of clients, more an acknowledgement of the changing focus on what clients really need, says Rabbi Cohen.

“The mental and spiritual health of our clients has become more prominent, especially because of the backgrounds they have come from. In the past, chaplains were traditionally faith-based, simply because the skills needed for such a role were often central to their own work. But it’s gone beyond that now. And one result of that change is the inclusion of humanist chaplains too.”

Rebecca Robinson is one of the humanist chaplains based in Glasgow. She said: “The vast majority of clients I’ve met have come from a variety of religious faiths.

“My own humanist perspective has, to date, been met with open-minded acceptance and it’s never been a barrier to communication or to a real human connection with those who have experienced often unimaginably difficult times.”

Rabbi Cohen said there were other reasons for the evolution of the service too.

“Many of our clients will have come from backgrounds where leaders of different faiths don’t and won’t mix. So when they meet our team of people with faith and no faith, it can initially seem something totally foreign to them. But that in itself is so important because it shows them that people of different faiths and no faith can and do get along quite normally. It sows the seeds of hope for them.”

Sahir (not his real name), who is 27, came to the UK from Syria in 2015. He said: “Faith was something I never felt strongly about personally, but it was very difficult in my community to reveal this and the consequences could have been very serious.  Finding someone who I could speak to about it here in the UK has been incredibly important to me. It was a relief in fact, just to be able to talk openly about it. It’s not something I could ever have done before.”

The pastoral care team is made up of 38 chaplains serving asylum seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking across the UK. It is due to expand its services to Liverpool later this year and to Wakefield early next year.