We needed two attempts to find the entrance to the Heathrow Immigration and Removal Centre at Harmondsworth. We still had time for the security process which seemed thorough, rather clinical. Dave has a knack of meeting Brazilians and he met three in the waiting room who visit the centre weekly to help run a Portuguese church service.
Patrick, the Chaplain, had invited us to their Carol Service. Entering through a series of security doors into a space rather like an airport lounge, a Romanian man sat next to me. Awaiting deportation following a GBH incident, he preferred HIRC to other ‘prisons’. He can go to the gym at any time. He got up and another Romanian took his place, holding out his hand, ‘Good evening Father’. He’d been a crack cocaine addict. He wanted now to live for Jesus, his life has changed since going to a church in Reading.
The Centre manager welcomed us, and the music started. We sang Light of the World, You Stepped down into Darkness. Enthusiastic clapping followed each song and carol. We were both drawn into the worship, really inspiring. One reading was in part read in Bengali, another in Arabic.
The ‘Harmondsworth Church’, made up of about 20 Nigerian and Ghanaian detainee men made their way up. ‘Now we will move up a gear’ the lead singer announced. Lots of cheering. Volume turned up to distorting point – drums and vocals, we joined in as best we could. A group in the row behind us carried us through. It was a hard act to follow for The Mayor of Hillingdon when he stood up to give a short message. Patrick hoped O Little Town would compete in volume with ‘the Church’ songs. ‘I doubt it’ a voice behind said. He was right. A Chinese choir then sang, phonetics on the screen for us to follow.
Towards the end, a reading from Luke 4 in which Jesus reads the Scripture “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives” was very well received by the detainees. Patrick used this passage to preach a sermon about hope and how even in a place like HIRC hopelessness can dramatically move to hope as the good news about Jesus is received. After Patrick’s sermon, we sang We Wish you a Merry Christmas and then it was mince pies, which didn’t last long with all the detainees!