Cathedral of Sanctuary – Our Journey
Christ Church Cathedral Dublin was honoured to receive Ireland’s first ‘Cathedral of Sanctuary’ on 16 February 2018. A certificate of the designation was presented by Andy Pollak, representing City of Sanctuary Dublin, to the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne. The presentation took place in the context of the gala launch of a pop-up cafe by Our Table, an organisation that highlights the need for change in Ireland’s Direct Provision system for asylum seekers.
From L to R: Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council; Archbishop Michael Jackson; Ellie Kisyombe, Co-founder of Our Table; the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, Dean; the Revd Abigail Sines, Dean’s Vicar.
The Cathedral’s Sanctuary Journey
Our journey towards the ‘Cathedral of Sanctuary’ designation had begun just about a year earlier in early 2017. Our entry point into the journey was concern in regards to Ireland’s system of direct provision and the treatment of those seeking asylum here. Prayer, reflection and a variety of conversations steered us in the direction of City of Sanctuary Dublin, where we were able to connect with others in our city who were trying to build a network of hospitality and welcome.
Our first step was to hold two awareness-raising sessions open to members of our board, chapter, the Friends of the Cathedral board, and members of our regular congregation. These sessions were ably facilitated by Tiffy and Brian Allen, from City of Sanctuary Dublin, and helped us to better understand the legal terms and definitions around seeking refugee, as well as the human experience of conflict and forced movement. These initial awareness-raising sessions were important for bringing our key stakeholders and decision-makers along in the journey and creating a sense of ownership around the work that lay ahead.
In parallel with the awareness-raising sessions, our Dean’s Vicar, the Revd Abigail Sines, wrote letters to the managers of direct provision centres around Dublin, seeking to invite residents to come to the cathedral for a free guided tour followed by a cup of tea and chat in the cathedral crypt. Several who attended the awareness-raising sessions met together further so that we could develop and appropriate tour ‘script’ suitable for different levels of English-language ability, and also to be available for the chat afterwards so that our guests could get a sense of warm and personal welcome.
We then began to explore the idea of organising a speaker series and inviting those who currently were in or had previously experienced the asylum system in Ireland to share a reflection on themes of family, home or time. We used the familiar Dublin greeting of ‘What’s the Story?’ as the title, as we wanted this to be an opportunity for those who were speaking to feel truly welcome and truly heard. ‘What’s the Story?’ first ran in September 2017, and further series taking place 2018 and 2019. We didn’t hold the series the series in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but we did resume the activity in an online version in 2021.
In 2017 we were also introduced to Ellie Kisyombe, at that time an asylum seeker living in direct provision, and co-founder of Our Table, a social enterprise which aims at creating a connected and inclusive community through food. Christ Church Cathedral was able to offer use of our crypt kitchen to Our Table and to serve as a base for several different pop-up cafe events since 2018.
Ellie writes of her experience of collaboration with the cathedral:
Through Our Table we have been very lucky to work together and given a place of sanctuary in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. My journey of working together with the cathedral has been a very inspirational experience of faith and hope. Working with the people at Christ Church, it’s been a journey that has restored my hope, to believe and trust in human kindness. They take their work very seriously by understanding the pain of the other without condition, but with an amount of love and care that sees no boundaries in the human race.
We have also undertaken to mark Refugee Week and Sanctuary Sunday each year since 2018. Activities have included film evenings and talks organised in partnership with the Irish Refugee Council. In 2019 we were delighted to be able to welcome the Revd Dr Inderjit Bhogal OBE as our guest preacher for a service of choral evensong on Sanctuary. While Covid-19 impacted plans for Refugee Week in 2020, we took our programme online for Imagine: A Virtual Art Exhibition for Refugee Week as well as a short reflective video prayer for Sanctuary Sunday.