These are not the circumstances we imagined being in when we last wrote to you, before we embarked on our month-long trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It feels that everything has changed with the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, which we assume is affecting you all as much as it is us here. However, we don’t want this to consume the good work that took place, even though followup is already proving more challenging! The current lockdown and physical distancing has highlighted the importance of presence in the Middle East context, and has made us even more grateful for the remarkable hospitality of friends – and former strangers who have now become friends – that we experienced in the Gulf.
At the end of January all three of us flew to Dubai for a series of both intentionally and fortuitously-timed events. The trip began with a four-day Safe Migration Consultation held at Christ Church in Jebel Ali in Dubai, facilitated by Joel. The workshop brought Christians from across the Gulf – whose churches are filled with migrant workers from around the world – together with Anglican Christians from East Africa, South Asia, and the Philippines, where so many of those migrant workers in the Gulf originate from. We met to learn about human trafficking, modern slavery, and the vulnerability of those in migration. We visited a labour camp and a fishing community, where the Anglican Church and the Mission to Seafarers are providing pastoral and practical support, and learned from other organisations about the establishment of a safe house for migrants in a different country in the region. Crucially we also invited the organisation Fifty Eight, who have developed an app for potential and in-country migrant workers, and the Turas Group, who are recruiters and normally considered “the bad guys” (as stated by the representatives present). Turas are a Christian organisation, so welfare, dignity and support are important to them as they look to redeem recruitment in the Middle East.
Following the end of the consultation we headed down to Abu Dhabi, to join the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf’s synod. Joel was able to present on his work for the Anglican Alliance and the Province, and also led a workshop on creation care. Fiona and Aidan also got to enjoy the hotel pool, beach and free shuttle buses, and generally seemed to have a good time!
At the end of the synod we took the relatively short taxi ride from Yas Island to the compound of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in the centre of Abu Dhabi. We arrived on a Friday morning, about an hour before the church service was due to begin, and therefore had to make our way to the vicarage (where we would stay for the next week) through huge throngs of worshippers from all countries of the world milling around the entrance to the compound. St Andrew’s, like all the Anglican churches in the Gulf, is home to more than just Anglican churches, hosting approximately 50 other congregations on its premises between Friday morning and Sunday evening. Thousands pass through the gates every week to praise God in almost every language you can think of. It is wonderful that the Anglican compound is able to offer such hospitality.
Our stay at St Andrew’s transpired in order to participate in the tenth World Urban Forum, which Fiona was presenting at, and to join in the Urban Shalom Society side events that were being hosted at St Andrew’s as a result of our links there. For Joel, there were some really interesting seminars on how communities around the world have “welcomed the stranger” in regards to the ongoing refugee crises. He also learned more about the work UN-Habitat is doing in Jordan to remake public spaces with community-led (including refugees) design. He now hopes to be able to link the Anglican Church with projects planned in areas where there is an Anglican presence.
Fiona presented the research she carried out during her last consultancy, which was a review of the impact of providing shelter assistance on other sectors such as health, livelihoods, education and gender. The session was well-attended and the report very well-received. Fiona also attended a variety of sessions including a workshop on mapping and panel on land rights, a particular passion of hers. The Urban Shalom Society also held a session which presented the findings from the various Urban Thinkers Campuses carried out last year, which Fiona was involved in organising. They also facilitated an Urban Shalom Forum, where Fiona gave a talk on land justice, as well as two multifaith academic workshops and a workshop on faith and urban resilience. It was great for Fiona to actually meet a lot of the people she’d been communicating with during the past year, and begin planning for what comes next with the organisation, as it looks to expand its multi-faith work and encourage faith communities to recognise and expand their role in the development of flourishing cities.
Now halfway through our trip, we then returned to Dubai as a base for visiting the other Anglican churches in the country, this time kindly hosted by the priest in charge of St Thomas’ in Al Ain. On the Friday we drove up to Ras al Khaimah in the north of the Emirates to worship with the largely Nigerian congregation, many of whom are young men who walk half an hour to catch a bus put on by the church to bring them to the building, an hour away. We shared fresh samosas and tea after the service – many of the churches provide substantial sustenance following services in the UAE. Much of the congregation receive food from the church’s foodbank, an indictment of the poverty that many of those travelling to the UAE in search of a better life are ultimately left in. Joel also travelled to St Martin’s Sharjah and went out to join in the migrant labour ministry in a partially deserted camp east of the city, where there is no electricity, and the services are carried out by candlelight and mobile phone torches. It was an incredible privilege to worship with young Urdu and West and East African men, whose dedication to their faith and desire for fellowship meant sacrificing the short amount of free time they have to come long distances to pray together. Joel was welcomed as an honoured guest, and had the joy of praying with some of the men. It was heartbreaking to hear some of the requests from people who would not see their own newborn children for months or even a year, let alone being separated from family members who were sick or dying.
It was about this time that we received news that Joel’s 93-year old grandmother was in declining health. The wonders of contemporary technology meant that we were able to send videos to her in her last few days, up until the morning she died. Not being present at her funeral helped us to empathise more deeply with the migrant labourers.
After the relentless pace in the UAE, our next stop was Oman, which provided a place of rest for a few days. Arriving into Muscat, we were hosted by members of the Protestant Church of Oman, who had been generous enough to offer us a room in their home, and their daughter quickly became fast friends with Aidan. We were also able to visit old Oman, the souq, forts and museums, as well as spending a day at Al Amana Centre, a Christian-run institution which promotes inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
After a relaxing time by the sea, and the relatively parochial setting of Old Muscat, we returned through the mountains and desert to the bustling modern Babylon of Dubai. Unlike the previous stops in Dubai, where we were staying in suburban villas on gated estates, this time we were in a hotel in the heart of Oud Metha. Our final port of call was the Renew Our World global leadership meeting, which once again Joel coordinated. It was held at Holy Trinity Church and brought half the global team together, while family illness and the already looming threat of COVID-19 prevented the full team from gathering. However, those present were able to make good use of the time, discussing and planning the responses required as regards our role as stewards of God’s creation. While perhaps even more pertinent given the changes we are seeing in the world as a result of the coronavirus, sadly many of the events planned for this year have already been postponed until 2021 or are in doubt to take place.
We returned to Amman after four wonderfully tiring but encouraging weeks, having shared fantastic times of friendship and fellowship and experienced a wonderfully diverse slice of the body of Christ. More than that, Aidan charmed his way through the month, slept and napped well, and adapted amazingly to life on the road.
However, we’d barely had the chance to settle back into something of a routine before world events overtook us. Jordan took rapid early action and enforced a lockdown while there were only one or two COVID-19 cases in the country, and we have been under partial curfew since. These steps have come with some challenges, with Aidan home all day and Joel trying to continue work, but seem to have been effective so far.
We are currently glad to have health and be together as a family. We are also aware that we are incredibly privileged to be able to buy the supplies needed to see us through a curfew, and that CMS continue to pay our stipends. In Jordan, and around the Levant, refugees and daily wage earners are in an incredibly vulnerable position at this time, not only economically, but at risk of rapid spread of the virus, particularly in the camps. Similarly, migrant labourers in the Gulf, who often live 8–12 people in a room and are often in exposed working conditions already, are very vulnerable to the virus. Please keep them in your prayers at this time.
The current circumstances have also thrown into question our summer plans – the observant among you may have noticed a bump in the photos from the Gulf! We are very pleased to share that Fiona is now seven months pregnant, and due to give birth in mid-June. However, our intention – or indeed the possibility – to return to the UK for the birth is now uncertain. Please pray for God to give us wisdom to make good choices that are right for our family as the situation unfolds. Please also pray for Aidan as he faces another transition, having got used to having both parents around all the time – and creativity and patience for us as we try to keep him occupied in the house.
If you’d like to see more of the fun things that Fiona and Aidan got up to in the Gulf, do visit Fiona’s blog. In the meantime, we pray for all your health, in mind, body and spirit, and in the uncertainty of the situations you are facing. Do be in touch if you would like to hear more.
Grace and peace,
Joel, Fiona, Aidan and the Bump!