Ex-Army captain who wants city of Good Samaritans
His Sheffield church group caused national controversy after its support for a Nigerian asylum seeker who fraudulently claimed Â£50,000 in benefits allowed the woman to escape jail.
But former Army captain Ben Hudd has said members of The Ark church in Woodseats will continue to act as Good Samaritans towards Sheffield’s poor and destitute.
The church’s support for Linda Okungbowa resulted in her avoiding a prison term earlier this month after she admitted claiming thousands in destitution and child benefits while working under false names to pay back human traffickers.
The mother-of-three was locked up for eight months in 2011 for using false documents to gain work while claiming around £70,000 in benefits – but despite her past offending, Judge Simon Lawler QC took the unusual step of suspending the normally-customary prison sentence for such a crime.
She turned up to court expecting to go to jail for a second time, with members of The Ark offering to act as foster carers to her children while she was behind bars.
But after Judge Lawler heard the circumstances of her time in the UK, and how the Sheffield churchgoers were supporting her – including paying her rent to ensure her and her family were not made homeless – he decided not to impose a jail term.
Following the case, Okungbowa said she had come to the UK in 2004 from Nigeria believing she would be training as a doctor, but instead became locked in an impossible cycle of paying back huge debts to criminals.
Okungbowa, aged 36, said after the case she had used the falsely-claimed benefits to pay back the traffickers who kept increasing the amount she owed them and were threatening her family in Nigeria.
Judge Lawler said: “I may be criticised because fraud from the public purse is common and everybody in this court knows usually the offender goes immediately to custody.
“But in this particular case I can see no useful purpose to the public in sending you to custody.”
The case attracted national attention after being reported by The Star, with the Daily Express describing her sentence as an example of ‘soft-touch Britain’.
Ben said he understood the ruling made people feel ‘uncomfortable’, but insisted justice had been done.
He said: “Having worked in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Bangladesh, I have seen the hard situations in life people find themselves in.
“I would like to think every single person would like compassion to be shown to them when they find themselves in a difficult situation.
“No-one is saying you haven’t done anything wrong, but what the judge showed to Linda is there is compassion and mercy.
“If we lose those things, you end up in a society that is not fit to live in.
“It challenges people’s perceptions, it makes people feel uncomfortable.
“People have said the church should pay back the money. That is about being fearful there is not enough money to go around – they are not getting what she got.
“That is not the message of the Gospel. The message is unconditional love.
“What we saw was justice, but compassion and mercy was achieved.
“I think everyone would like to think if they found themselves in a very difficult situation that justice – but also mercy and compassion – would be done and shown to them.”
She said Linda had been in a desperate situation when the church began to help her claim benefits she was legally entitled to after her bank account was frozen due to the prosecution she was facing.
Ben said the church has already being helping other people in similar situations to Linda in Sheffield, and hopes to expand its work for the local community.
He said the nondenominational church hopes to soon be able to use the Woodseats Baptist Church building for their work. He was previously a minister at the church before establishing The Ark last summer.
“We would love to get the building back. We could do more and more for people like Linda,” he said.
Ben said it is hoped the building could be used by the group to establish a food bank and debt counselling services, as well as being used for religious purposes.
He said a key aim of his church organisation is to put the rules of Christianity into practice in real life.
“If you are going to believe in the Bible you have got to believe in what it says and do what it says,” he said.
“Everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan. That story is about crossing the road to the one person you would have nothing to do with, who all the rest of society ignores.”
Ben said his own religious awakening happened in his early 30s when he came out of the Army after being involved in ‘some pretty heavy stuff’ during military tours of duty in places such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland.
He said being in the military contributed to the breakdown of his first marriage.
Ben said he met his second wife Nicole at a church in Sheffield shortly after his religious conversion and his life began to turn around.
He said his faith was strengthened after he went with Nicole to do aid work in Bangladesh in 2009.
Nicole, who is a doctor, spent around seven months with Ben in Dhaka working on projects to improve the lives of vulnerable women and children.
Ben helped set up a coffin-making business in northern Bangladesh to provide an income for families so that they didn’t have to traffick their children.
He said conditions were harsh for the people who lived there, with desperate levels of poverty.
But Ben said there was a strong community spirit, despite the hardships people faced.
“There was a lady whose house had burned down by accident and she literally lost everything,” he said.
“She still came into work that morning and by the time she got home, her house had been completely rebuilt by the local community.
“Within two days, she was up and running.
“It made me think if that can happen among the poorest people in the world, why isn’t it happening in Sheffield?
“I came home completely dissatisfied by the way I was living my life.”
Ben trained as a baptist minister in 2011 and set up The Ark last summer, working with organisations such as women’s refuges to help others.
He said this was partly inspired by his time in the military in Northern Ireland, where he witnessed a ‘huge amount of bigotry’ due to the religious divide between Protestants and Catholics.
Ben, Nicole and their three children are financially supported by a charity called Stewardship, which allows the family to ‘live by faith’ while running the church.
He said his life experiences have taught him the importance of helping people facing similar predicaments to Linda Okungbowa.
Ben said he hopes that other people who find themselves in difficulties can find help in Sheffield.
“It is only when you go to these places and see how people live that you understand why people do these things,” he said.
“I understand we are in a difficult situation trying to balance the country’s resources with compassion.
“But it is time the church played a part.
“I don’t see anything special in what we have done for Linda at all.
“This is just something people can do out of compassion.”