Refugee: A Christmas Story

In December 2018, we worked with a school in one of the most challenging estates in Battersea. Revd Betsy Blatchley, Pioneer Minister of the Arts in Nine Elms, writes...

In February 2018 I was licensed to the brand new role of Pioneer Minister in the Arts in Nine Elms, based in the Parish of Battersea Fields. That began the process of networking and praying and building links towards the development of a new worshipping community in the Nine Elms/Battersea Power Station development area. Almost exactly nine months later, on 18th December, on a wet and chilly afternoon in the Battersea Power Station Development, in a packed out theatre, Refugee: A Christmas Story felt like the ‘birth’ of this new community.

To rewind a few months, in the summer, sitting outside the Southwark Cathedral Café, I had one of many meetings I was having with faith-based arts organisations and artists. On this occasion I was meeting Ruth Hughes, Artistic Director of Springs Dance (a faith-based contemporary dance company) and Emily Yong one of their lead dancers. Over coffee, unknowingly, the germ of this Christmas event was born. That short meeting led to a residency at our Church of England Primary School, St George’s on the Patmore Estate, one of the most challenging estates in the area. The second part of that residency saw two dancers, Emily Yong and Sarah Hitch, working with nearly sixty children aged 7-9, once a week to develop a dance piece inspired by the delightful illustrated book Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher. This simple retelling of the Nativity, which never mentions Mary, Joseph or Jesus by name, is told from the perspective of the Donkey, and focuses on the theme of the family as refugees seeking the kindness of strangers.

Most of the children at St George’s had no previous dance experience and working with two Christian dancers, who are high level professionals, was a wonderful opportunity to access a dance form they might otherwise not have. It was also a great way to help them think more deeply about the Christmas story and its implications in today’s world. Being present at most of the workshop sessions, it was amazing to see the children grow in skill, focus and understanding. Alongside the work with St George’s, our Pioneer Curate, Vanessa Elston, and artists Jo and Anna Colwill worked with our local Brownie pack exploring the book and the wider themes of the refugee experience through drama and art workshops.

I was keen that our first public event in the Power Station development should be something that helped bring different parts of our very diverse community together, as well as celebrating the threefold nature of the new community – arts, spirituality and social justice. Refugee: A Christmas Story was perfect for this. The dance piece, performed by nearly fifty children, was the centre of the event and was originally due to be performed in the open air by the ‘Pop-Ups’ in the Circus West, Power Station development. However, just a few weeks before the performance, we were thrilled to be offered The Village Hall, a brand new performance space in the railway arches of Circus West, yards from the iconic power station. This enabled us to develop a larger event than originally planned.

I made contact with the publishers of ‘Refuge’, Nosy Crow, and was delighted to be put in touch with the author Anne Booth who came and kicked off the afternoon by talking about what motivated her to write the book – hearing a politician suggest that welcoming refugees into the UK threatened ‘Christian values’ - and about the development of the book which was eventually published to raise funds for the charity War Child. She then read the short book to an entranced audience of nearly 200 adults and children. Anne also signed dozens of copies of the book at the end of the event. We also invited Battersea Welcomes Refugees, to be part of the event, and Area Dean, Rev Richard Taylor, talked about their work in hosing Syrian refugee families in Battersea. The afternoon was rounded off by Sam Evans, Music Director of Battersea Power Station Community Choir, leading the whole audience in carol singing. There was also a display of the work done by the Brownies in the foyer for the audience to look at whilst they supped mulled wine provided by local pizza restaurant Mother.

But it was the children who were centre stage – the dance piece, which told the Christmas story whilst exploring themes of welcome, danger and journey, was stunning and so moving. Dressed in their red ‘Follow the Star’ T Shirts, they looked as if they had been working together as a dance company for years and responded amazingly to having to perform in a space they had only rehearsed in for an hour! And they also entertained the audience with a fabulous medley of Christmas songs.

In my new role, I was really thrilled that Refugee: A Christmas Story, brought together so many different groups of people to make the event happen – people who I had been getting to know in the area over these past months (over lots of cups of coffees). The cultural teams within the new developments, faith-based artists, school and community groups, deanery colleagues and local businesses. People of all faiths and none. But the audience also gave me such encouragement as I began to see what this new community might look like. Parents of the children, from a wide variety of faith backgrounds, mingled with senior American Embassy staff, developers, councillors and council arts staff, representatives from premier arts organisations based in the area, such as the Royal Academy of Dance, diocesan visitors and many faith-based professional artists who have caught the vision for this new community. A community that I hope will draw local people from all walks of life and congregate around a love of the arts, a passion for social justice and a desire to go spiritually deeper and explore the relevance of Christian faith in our contemporary society. What better way to give birth to and launch this new community, than around an event which, through the power of the arts, remembers and celebrates the birth of the Christ child – a refugee.

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