Visiting the Chaplains at Heathrow and Colnbrook Detention Centre

I lost my sense of direction on a transit bus somewhere between Terminal 5 and Terminal 1, I got confused about whether I was ‘airside’ or ‘land side’ or in some sort of no man’s land in between but I never lost the excitement of this cutting edge ministry where a multi faith team of chaplains walk the floors of the various terminals, meet aircrew, baggage handlers, maintenance staff and passengers as well visiting the huge variety of retail outlets which constitute this enormous, complex place. It was good to spend the day with two URC chaplains – John Mackerness in a Special Category Ministry post and Paul Murphy a part-time lay chaplain. The whole team consists of four full-time chaplains – John, two Salvation Army Majors and a Roman Catholic priest. There are also a number of other part-time volunteer chaplains both lay and ordained as well as Buddhist, Moslem, and Hindu team members. As with much chaplaincy, the work involves being a ‘presence’, available for any of the 72,000 people who work there (and that is before thinking about the thousands of passengers who pass through). The chaplains wear high viz tabards, clearly labeled ‘Airport Chaplain’ and dog collars/crosses or other appropriate signs. Many of the conversations are quite superficial or purely helping members of the public to find their way round but we never know when our presence at a particular moment in a person’s life will result in something much more significant at a later date. This is work which requires pastoral skills and the ability to reflect theologically on a whole variety of issues encountered on a daily basis. Apparently a passenger was heard to say one day “they’ve got the church here” – we should remember that Jesus said “Go into all the world …” not “Go into all the church …”. Heathrow is a particular ‘world’ of its own but the effect of a Christian presence in this one place is potentially felt world-wide.

That was the morning and in the afternoon Paul took me to Colnbrook Detention Centre. A place for 400 men being held in detention before the authorities eventually decide whether they should be deported through Heathrow or whether they may stay in Britain. Many of the residents are of Muslim or Hindu faith but some are pleased to talk to a Christian chaplain regardless of the specific faith background. Security is inevitably tight and the feel is of a prison, but these are not prisoners in the normal sense of the word. Their stay could be long and few have any sense of how long because it depends on so many things. Chaplaincy work here involves listening, sometimes sharing scriptures, often praying. Again this is a ministry of presence both for the men and the staff – the contrast in the environments of Heathrow and Colnbrook was marked. One a place of freedom to travel the world the other a place of imprisonment – locked doors, cameras and razor wire and yet very occasionally there has been an example of a conversion and baptism leading to even a ‘prisoner’ speaking of being free – God can do amazing things in what seem like the most unlikely situations but we need to be prepared to put ourselves into those unlikely situations to be part of God’s purposes.

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