5 min read

How I came to love my new neighbours

Moving to Liverpool, home to the team he hated, challenges football supporter Sam Tomlin’s sense of belonging.

Sam Tomlin is a Salvation Army officer, leading a local church in Liverpool where he lives with his wife and children.

Silouhetted by red flare smoke, celebrating footballs wave red flags.
Liverpool football fans celebrate.
Fleur on Unsplash.

I was born in Exeter, England but my family moved to Oxford when I was two. I don’t remember Exeter at all. I am sometimes envious of people who proudly share how they were ‘born and bred’ in a city or town and trace their lineage there back generations. I profoundly identified with Nick Hornby in his brilliant book Fever Pitch when he describes being a white, middle-class, southern English man or woman as being ‘the most rootless creature on earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish… have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want.’ 

I began to love football and started attending games. My Dad, born in Bristol, took me to Oxford United and while I enjoyed going with my friends, I could tell he didn’t care as much when Oxford scored compared to when we went to Bristol City games when I would see a normally calm and controlled man hug random strangers and fall over seats. This is much more exciting – so I committed myself as a Bristol City fan which I am to this day. 

Growing up in a school in Oxford, however, it’s not particularly cool to say you support Bristol City, so if you supported a lower league team you also pick a Premier League team. Mine was Manchester United for the very unoriginal reason that they were the best. I had posters of Roy Keane – my hero on whom I modelled my playing style and I even travelled up to Old Trafford when a ticket very occasionally presented itself. They were my second team – and a very close second. 

Over the years I have come to deeply love the streets, landmarks and people who call this home as I have lived and served alongside them.

When you support a football team, you also commit to disliking other teams as part of the deal. Most teams have a local rival they enjoy hating, and while I certainly disliked Bristol Rovers, my particular ire was reserved for Liverpool, partly because they were Man Utd’s main rivals in the late 90’s and partly because some of my friends supported them (for the same reason I’ve always had an irrational dislike of QPR but that’s another story). I really disliked Liverpool – I didn’t quite have a poster of Michael Owen or Phil Babb to throw darts at but it wasn’t far off. Football rivalry is a serious business – in the 70’s and 80’s people lost their lives to football hooliganism and while this has thankfully decreased in recent decades, additional police presence is still required at local derbies as passions continue to run high. 

I feel quite vulnerable sharing this publicly because it’s something I’ve never shared with the congregation I’ve been leading with my wife for over seven years. The reason for this is that we now live in Liverpool. God, it seems, has a great sense of irony – we became Salvation Army officers and not choosing where we were sent, the letter we opened in 2016 telling us where we would be ‘appointed’ said: Liverpool! 

'The very first person you meet is the neighbour, whom you shall love… There is not a single person in the whole world who is as surely and as easily recognised as the neighbour.’ 

Søren Kierkegaard 

Jesus says that the greatest commandments are to love God with everything that you are, and to love your neighbour as yourself. In response to a question about ‘who’ our true neighbours are, he shares a story about a man on a journey far from home who is beaten up and left for dead. His compatriots walk on the other side of the road, but someone from another, distrusted and strange land comes and takes care of him. 

Søren Kierkegaard reflects on these stories and observes how humans like to abstract these commands to suit us better. We think our neighbours are those who look and sound like us as much as possible – this is the impulse of patriotism or love of country. But I have never been to Middleborough, Lincoln, or Dundee and while these people might be my compatriots, they are not really my neighbours – to some extent my love for them is an abstraction from reality. For Kierkegaard, ‘The very first person you meet is the neighbour, whom you shall love… There is not a single person in the whole world who is as surely and as easily recognised as the neighbour.’ In this regard, Kierkegaard suggests, Christian loyalty and love is more appropriately applied to a neighbourhood, town or city than it is to a nation or country (this essay by Stephen Backhouse explains more on this with reference to Kierkegaard). 

The people I meet every day, walking around the streets of Liverpool are my neighbours and as such I am commanded as a follower of Jesus to love them. This love of God has not only helped me fall in love with a city I once did not know, but even transform something as ingrained as football rivalry. The most fundamental and formative songs I sing are about Jesus, not of a city and the narrative I try and organise my life around is found in the Bible not the history of a city or football club. But we are embodied creatures, and God creates us in and calls us to particular places, where we live, breathe and encounter our neighbours. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying I have become a Liverpool fan! I would still want Liverpool to lose if they played Bristol City and Man Utd, but the God who is able to transform even the deepest hatred into love has softened the heart of this southern, middle-class boy into a love of his new city, its people and perhaps even one of its football teams I once intensely disliked. 

War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.