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Inspire Awards 2015: Everything changed

Dave Smith went from being a heavy-drinking student to championing the cause of asylum seekers. He tells Amanda Pilz how it all started …

Dave Smith went from being a heavy-drinking student to championing the cause of asylum seekers. He tells Amanda Pilz how it all started …

I wasn't brought up in a Christian home. We never talked about religion, sex or politics at home so it was a bit boring. My parents sent me to a horrible boarding school, where I began to hate privilege and snobbery.

At university I became a communist but soon became disillusioned with the political left. I also started to drink a lot and basically messed my life up big time.

I had a girlfriend who then became a Christian. She told me that our relationship had to end, which annoyed me. She suggested I went to see the president of the Christian Union who had helped her make a commitment to following Jesus. So I did, telling myself I was going to sort him out.

But when I got there he just listened, over many cups of coffee until midnight, to all my reasons why there was no God; and amazingly he had answers that I didn’t know existed.

At midnight I said to him: “OK, you tell me about your God then” – and he did, for the next five hours. At 5am I prayed with him, committing my life to Jesus. I was desperate to believe but just couldn’t. It seemed too good to be true that there was a God who loved me.

The next day, as I went to the bar to get my lunchtime pint, I saw a sign to a Christian Union meeting. I sat down at the back with my pint and listened. Then I looked down at the wooden arm of the chair I was sitting on. Someone had carved “God was here” in the wood. At that moment I sensed God saying: “No Dave, not God was here, God is here.” That was the moment I believed. I left my pint there, went home, got down on my knees and said to God: “Now I know it’s true.”

After that everything changed. I didn’t take another drink for 10 years. I didn’t need it the moment I found Jesus. I knew I wanted to follow him from then on.

In 1993, my wife and I started a soup run for homeless people in Manchester called the Mustard Tree. In 1998 I gave up my job to run it full-time and we opened a second-hand clothing and furniture store in an old mill.

One year later the first asylum seeker came through the door. He was an Iraqi in his 40s who had been an eye surgeon in Saddam Hussein’s army. He had a flat, a cooker and a bed, but nothing more. He was the first asylum seeker we helped and within a year we were seeing people from many nationalities benefiting from the Mustard Tree.

In 2003 we came across destitute asylum seekers from a variety of countries. Often people were fleeing political and religious persecution, conscription and war. We started to take them into our family home, letting them sleep on the sofa bed.

This led to us forming the Destitution Project in partnership with the Red Cross, providing food, bus fares and toiletries for people who had been refused asylum. This grew weekly until by August 2003 we were providing 80 food parcels a week.

By 2004 the work with asylum seekers was beginning to take over the Mustard Tree, so I left to start the Boaz Trust in April 2004. Now, as well as our night shelter, we have the use of 14 houses for accommodating asylum seekers. We refer them to solicitors to make a fresh claim for refugee status, and help them to start living a normal life.

The Boaz Trust has been a faith venture from day one. God has provided wonderful staff and volunteers, houses for peppercorn rent and funding from all sorts of unexpected places. We access virtually no statutory funding, yet we are now accommodating more than 50 refused asylum seekers as well as 25 refugees. We’ve helped around 500 asylum seekers since we started.

We aim to carry on with what we’re doing, continue networking with 30 other organisations doing similar work across the nation, engage with politicians on the subject and give asylum seekers a voice.

Dave Smith was nominated for an Individual Award in the 2015 Inspire Awards by Ros Holland.

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