Main Menu

Florida church team denied entry into UK

Florida church team denied entry into UK

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida church team denied entry into UK

By Jenna De Marco | July 31, 2009 {1059}

A London-bound mission team from First United Methodist Church of Okeechobee, Fla., recently received an unexpected education on U.K. Border Agency laws.

The Rev. Jim Dawson (left, back row) and the team get ready to leave for London. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1274.

Shortly after the team’s arrival at Gatwick Airport June 23, customs officials informed the group’s members that they lacked the proper documents for entry into the country as charity or religious workers. The 14-person team — half of whom were teenagers — had planned a nine-day trip that included sightseeing and volunteer service at Islington Central Methodist Church near London.

Those plans dissolved when customs workers detained the group at the airport and eventually informed them they would be sent back to the United States, according to the Rev. Jim Dawson, team leader and assistant pastor at the Okeechobee church.

“The mood in the holding room was one of shock and utter disappointment,” Dawson said in a prepared statement. “We were stunned. The girls and women were crying. What seemed like an awesome trip was over.”

Vance Shirley, an adult chaperone with the group, said it was an “awful experience.”

“My daughter was there … and we were the first ones taken back and, you know, were fingerprinted, and they took a mug shot of us, and they also searched us, and I thought it was degrading, for one thing,” he said.

Bridge to Pier 6 at the North Terminal of Gatwick Airport, which is 28 miles south of London. Photo by Pete Barr-Watson. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #09-1275.

The team arrived in London believing they were prepared. They were carrying U.S. passports and photo identification, but questions arose when customs officials noted the team was missing the more extensive paperwork needed by temporary workers visiting the U.K.

The group was also surprised to learn that the U.K. Border Agency had restructured many of its entry requirements in the past several months, Dawson said. Under the current “points-based” system, charity or religious workers must show a visa and a certificate of sponsorship from the organization they intend to serve, according to the border agency’s Web site. Policies for such visitors fall under the “Tier 5” category.

American tourists, however, typically do not need visas for short visits. Dawson’s in-person requests that the group’s members be allowed to stay as tourists were denied. Instead, they were sent back to the United States on two separate flights later that day.

“Basically, we just fell between the cracks of the law change,” Dawson said. “If we would have known, we would have made the necessary adjustments.”

The total budget for the trip was approximately $30,000. The team raised $20,000 through fund-raising events, such as a golf tournament, Dawson said. The anticipated $10,000 difference came from team member contributions. Although the airfare was non-refundable, First United Methodist Church is using the remaining trip funds to reimburse team members for their contributions, as well as other individuals who helped sponsor team members.

Volunteer work put on hold

While visiting London, the team was scheduled to give Islington Central Methodist Church a “makeover,” according to its pastor, the Rev. Paul Weary. The projected work included cleaning the church interior and grounds and repainting the sanctuary. Team members had also planned to help with a related homeless feeding ministry and thrift store and were set to canvass the church neighborhood with information about a celebration service that coincided with the church’s anniversary.

Statue of Sir Hugh Myddleton on Islington Green, Islington, London. Photo by Fin Fahey. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #09-1276.

“Doing charitable work was the main reason why we went,” Dawson said.

He said the team had also been eager to experience the English culture and learn about the heritage of The Methodist Church, visiting sites related to the ministry of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Weary was planning to be the tour guide.

“We wanted to go to London, and I prayed about it, and this is where the Lord wanted us to go,” Dawson said. “It means that the mission trip that the Lord had for us played out in a way unbeknownst to me. Maybe the law gets changed. Are we wrong for going? I don’t think so.”

In arranging the mission trip, Dawson originally contacted The Methodist Church of Great Britain about ways in which a team might be of help to the connection. An e-mail dialogue began, resulting in the link with Islington Central Methodist Church. In describing the church’s demographics, Weary said Sunday worship typically includes about 20 to 30 people, mainly of black and minority ethnicities.

Mixed reactions

News of the canceled trip has been broadcast in a handful of British and American media, generating mixed comments from the public in both countries, Dawson said. Some reactions show frustration with the U.K. government, while others criticize the group’s choice for the trip location.

“We’ve gotten more sympathy from the people in England than from the people of America, who have been harshly critical,” he said.

Camden Passage in Islington, London. Photo by Fin Fahey. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #09-1277.

Some of the feedback questioned why the group chose not to help meet needs in the United States rather than going abroad, Dawson said. He responded by noting that his church has sent teams to Mexico, Appalachia and Mississippi across the past 10 years. Their prior service includes assisting with vacation Bible school and church construction in Mexico and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in Mississippi.

Searching for resolution

Discussion of the canceled trip did not end when the team returned to the United States. Weary has continued to pursue the matter in recent weeks.

Regarding the possible interpretations of the regulations, Weary contacted Emily Thornberry, a member of Parliament representing the Islington area.

“I was very sorry to hear about what had happened, and I know this must have been very disappointing for your visitors and for you,” Thornberry wrote in a letter to Weary. “I appreciate that you have now looked at the rules covering Tier 5 entry clearance, and you understand why the fact that the visitors confirmed they were intending to undertake voluntary work caused problems for them.

“However, I take your point that many church groups may be caught out in the same way, and I agree with you that it is important to have clear guidance for charitable and voluntary groups on how they should deal with short visits of this kind.”

Thornberry also provided Weary with a copy of a letter she wrote expressing her concerns to the U.K. Home Office, which is the U.K.’s chief governmental agency over immigration, passports, drug policy and counter-terrorism.

The current border agency policy creates a “moral dilemma” for individuals who respond truthfully to customs about their volunteer work, Dawson said, and yet are unaware of the documentation guidelines. He also said the Tier 5 regulations are complicated.

Statue of John Wesley on City Road in Shoreditch, London. Photo by Fin Fahey. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #09-1278.

“(They’re) punishing us for being honest,” Dawson said. “Do you really think that the element that they are trying to keep out of the U.K. is going to be honest?”

Shirley said his advice to other church mission teams is to carefully examine the regulations for entry into foreign countries before going abroad.

“Do your homework and then check your homework and then check again before you go and hope that you found out everything because we did our homework, and it didn’t seem to do the trick,” he said.

Future mission teams will likely learn from this group’s experience, said Icel Rodríguez, Florida Conference director of Global Mission. Groups seeking a reliable method for conducting an overseas mission trip should begin by consulting with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), she said.

“They know the global context,” Rodríguez said. “They have the expertise and the knowledge, and they have the coordinators in other countries.”

UMVIM is helpful with navigating border agency policies, as well as acquiring travel insurance and addressing unfamiliar situations that might arise in a foreign country, Rodríguez said. Although she has prior experience on overseas mission teams, Rodríguez said she would not take a future mission trip without first registering with the organization.

Rodríguez is currently preparing for a one-year appointment as a Florida Conference missioner to the East Angola Conference. She said UMVIM training will be an important requirement for church teams preparing to visit Angola in the coming year as part of the East Angola/Florida Partnership.

“You have to take advantage of what you know,” she said.

More information about UMVIM is available at Information about charity workers traveling to England can be found on the U.K. Border Agency Web site at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.