The churches seeking vulnerable refugees for Alpha course conversions


Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He became editor of The Skeptic in August 2020.

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Following the terrorist bombing of Liverpool Women’s Hospital by Emad al-Swealmeen, there was a media rush to understand as much as possible about the life of the bomber, and the factors that influenced his decision to detonate a home-made explosive on November 14th.

We soon learned that al-Swealmeen moved to the UK in 2014, and was sectioned that same year after brandishing a knife around Liverpool City Centre and following a suicide attempt. We learned that he converted to Christianity a year later at the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral – the institution that was the site of the Remembrance Day ceremony this year.

Al-Swealmeen is not the first refugee to convert to Christianity at the cathedral in Liverpool – its outreach program has led to a string of conversions. The media, along with hard-line elements of the UK government, raised questions as to whether too many people were converting – whether the refugees or the Church were “gaming the system” by using conversion to Christianity as a way to short cut the asylum process. Many cited a tribunal decision from 2017 which suggested an “improbably large” number of Iranians were attending Liverpool Anglican Cathedral services, expressing doubts that they were all “genuine converts”. While those attacks are likely to prove unfair – and it seems highly unlikely that the Church had been hoodwinked in this case by someone whose long-term plan had always been to commit a terrorist act – I do think there are important questions to be asked of the church regarding their approach to targeting refugees for conversion.

We know, for instance, that the church has talked openly about how it wants to diversify its congregation, and that it identified refugees and asylum seekers as a growth opportunity. Liverpool Anglican Cathedral’s outreach program, the Joshua Centre, has materials that explicitly refer to the need to start new congregations as a way of “church planting”. They outline in their official podcast that the goal of the Joshua Centre is to start thirty new congregations in five years and to make 900 new disciples in that time.

Of course, this is no surprise – all religions seek to spread what they think is true, so it’s hardly shocking to hear that they target growth, especially as rates of religiosity in the UK have been falling, despite what press releases about public prayer walls might want you to believe. But a podcast episode from the Joshua Centre talks explicitly about what that process looks like: they find refugees and asylum seekers – people who are inevitably in vulnerable positions – to give them “welcome boxes” of resources and supplies, and those welcome boxes are used to get a foot in the door, to build trust, a relationship, and “cultural competence”. At the end of the episode, the advice is to “sow generously” and to “look out for those who are going to be door-openers into their communities” to “invest your time in”.

The welcome boxes are linked to initiatives like Welcome Churches, who encourage churches to seek out refugees and bring them into their congregations, explaining:

41,000 refugees came to the UK in 2019. If every church in the UK welcomed one person seeking refuge, then no refugee would be alone. Refugees leave their homes, families, jobs, communities… their whole lives behind. Many have experienced severe trauma, loss and distress.

Arriving in a new country can add to the trauma and stress refugees experience. When asylum seekers and refugees first arrive in the UK they often feel isolated. They can be unsure how to access services or find a place to belong.

And while they’re not wrong, there is an inherent risk involved in explicitly targeting people who are isolated, and who have suffered ‘severe trauma’, especially without any of the training and expertise required to understand the vulnerability of people who have suffered such trauma. The people being targeted are often isolated, alone, and desperately in need of services and support. It may seem no bad thing, then, that a church brings them a welcome gift of supplies, advice on how to access support services, even the ability to unite them with people in a similar situation, and perhaps to have conversations in a familiar language. Where things get more concerning, however, is when that help comes, over time, with implicit or explicit pressure to convert to their religion.

In 2017, the website Premier Christianity ran an article on how successful these types of endeavours can be for the church:

Another congregation birthed in recent years is Sepas which meets at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The community is led by Rev Mohammad Edghtedarian who himself converted to Christianity while applying for asylum in the UK.

In 2013 the cathedral ran an Alpha course but found that after a few weeks, there were more Persian than British people attending. As a result they ran the Persian version of the course. Sepas, which means ‘thanksgiving’, emerged from the course as a Farsi-speaking service attended by over 110 people every week. The majority of the congregation are refugees.

Advert from the Alpha Course which reads "Got Questions? Is there more to life than this? Does God exist? What happen's next? Join the adventure. #TryAlpha"

It is somewhat surprising to hear the Alpha course come up in this context – a decade ago, the Alpha course was much more visible. It was being heavily promoted by the church in expensive advertising campaigns – it’s “Got Questions?” campaign appeared on the side of buses, in posters on public transport, and in adverts on TV channels and at cinemas. It was seen at the time as the Church’s answer to New Atheism and the growing visibility of non-believers; a course they dared atheists to take, with promises that it could convert anyone. The Alpha course usually consists of a ten-week series, where each week starts with a communal meal hosted by the Alpha course, followed by a talk, and discussions where you’re heavily led to believe the answer is the Christian god. The ten-week course would end with a weekend getaway, where participants were strongly encouraged to speak in tongues.

It’s easy to see how gifts, supplies, free meals, and the promise of community might appeal to people in highly vulnerable positions. When that support is intentionally the starting point of a process designed to convert the recipient to Christianity, it should also be a potential source of concern. I don’t believe that the Church is necessarily being intentionally cynical in targeting refugees – I honestly think they sincerely want to help people who have little other access to services, resources and support. I also think they may even help many of those people, with their meals and resources and directing people to the services they need and directing them to a community of people like them.

However, where things get less positive is where that support transitions into the strong implication that the person who is so grateful for all of the help they’ve received ought to give up their religion. For many of the people who are persuaded to convert, the majority will fare fine – some will persist in their new Christian life, others will drift away from the Church when they no longer require the support their new religion came attached to. But when the church explicitly and deliberately starts by looking for people who have suffered (in their own words) “severe trauma, loss, and distress” – or, indeed, people who have been through mental health crises and were recently sectioned as a result – that quest to plant new churches and convert new disciples can quickly become something potentially quite harmful to the people being targeted.

If the aim of the Church is solely to bring a more diverse community to their congregation, there is no real reason why they need to explicitly target the most vulnerable, desperate, traumatised and at-risk communities of people; that they continue to do so implies that they’re targeted at least in part because of that vulnerability, and their susceptibility to the Church’s influence.

In all of its branding and advertising, the Alpha course invites people who have questions, and promises them answers; I think there are some serious questions for the Church to ask itself about who it targets for outreach and growth, and why. I hope they have the self-reflection to answer those questions honestly.

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