The Voice of Humanity: Interview & Video with John Kearns about Austin Smith House

19th October 2018

In May, Austin Smith House in Sparkhill Birmingham celebrated its 4th birthday. Since opening in 2014, it has welcomed over 20 men who have been made destitute by the UK’s cruel and racist asylum system. In this interview by Sr Katrina Alton CSJP, John Kearns CP, our Provincial, was asked to reflect on how living in a house of hospitality has transformed him.

Katrina: What were your hopes coming to live here?

John: I was looking forward to Martin and I coming together as a Passionist community, I’d been living on my own before this, so that was welcomed. Basically, providing a home for the homeless, Matthew 25 is key for me, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”. That has been inspirational to since I was a young man, so to fulfil it now in this way was important. I see this as a way to live out my Passionist values in a way I hadn’t done before, especially the basics, offering food, shelter. And it’s a joy.

K: And your fears?

J: The big and obvious one is it was new. I had never lived in a house of hospitality before. What would living with refugees and asylum seekers be like? Of course, this was all totally unfounded. Most of the guys have been lovely, good human beings, and I have been enriched by them and their stories.

K: And that has changed, transformed you?

J: In religious life we talk about “lifelong formation”, and this has been a formative experience. Is this the heart of the Gospel? Yes! Should we have done it sooner? Yes! Especially given all that Pope Francis has said and the sheer number of people now displaced, and Europe now facing massive political questions. This is of the moment. A tiny voice of humanity- each is my sister, my brother- seeing people like that rather than as a political problem. It’s an opportunity to be generous in love- it should be the way all Christians think- it’s not the way politicians think.

K: And you chose to open the house in Sparkhill?

J: It’s very significant where we are located; in a Muslim Pakistani area. But the last thing we want to do is convert them, we want to be a benign presence. To show people can live in harmony. Trump said parts of Birmingham are no go areas. Rubbish! We are here!

K: Have you got to know your neighbours?

J: Not as well as I would like. With other responsibilities I don’t have the time. But there have been lovely gestures towards us from the neighbours like bringing us ice cream. It’s really down to the guys in the house, they do jobs for people.

K: What’s been the emotional transformation?

J: I came with a high level of anxiety, so there has been a deep level of transformation. I feel settled and really enjoy having the men here. My attitude has been transformed and formed by them. ‘Transformation’ and ‘formation’ are closely linked. I’m a better person, a better Passionist, I think, I hope!

K: And on a practical level?

J: I’d never cooked for more than 1 or 2 people before, and now I regularly cook for 5 or 6. It was hard getting used to a smaller space. So, it has had its challenges. The house isn’t as comfortable as living in a traditional religious house. People you live with don’t share your lifestyle, your routines.

And we had to say from the outset we can’t take people with high support needs, because if they come and then they are not OK, what do we do? So, the exit strategy has to be as humane as possible too, and I sometimes feel bad about that, because on a rare occasion they literally don’t have anywhere to go.

K: What would you say to anyone thinking of doing this, especially other religious?

J: Well it has to go back to Matthew 25, “When did you see me homeless?” To be able to live something of that is the most transformative, and it might sound simple, but that’s the bottom line really.

In 2015, 18 months after opening Austin Smith House, the CSJP sisters interviewed John and Martin about their experiences. Watch the video below to find out more about their life and ministry in Sparkhill, Birmingham.