Sunday, March 20, 2016

The meaning of witness

Ten days ago, I visited the jungle with Lynn Green from the Baptist Union to help her see what was happening and give her some insight into the work I and some colleagues (notably Juliet Kilpin) are doing there.

In the course of our visit, we spent half an hour with some Iranian brothers who started a hunger strike on the day the demolitions of the southern part of the camp started. They had sewed their lips together and refused food until the French authorities acted to resolve the situation of everyone in the jungle justly, in accordance with France's commitment to the human rights of all people.

A good number of these Iranians are Christians, fleeing religious persecution but facing (as they see it) complete indifference from Europe.

As I sat with these brothers I reflected on the fact that I have many times shared with my students at Spurgeon's College that the New Testament teaches that Christian witness often involves the church being shredded for the salvation of the nations; that Jesus' call to take up our cross and follow him is potentially an invitation to die. As I looked into the eyes of these Iranian brothers, I saw what that meant: here were people prepared to suffer - perhaps even to die - for the peace and freedom of those who shared their current plight. Greater love has no one, I thought, than those thst lay down their lives for their friends.

I was deeply affected by this half hour.

Last week - on Wednesday afternoon - the prefecture visited the Iranians. They offered them the chance to have their asylum applications fast-tracked, even to get assistance to apply for asylum in the UK if that's what they wanted. All they had to do was give up their protest. Their response was to remind the prefecture that they are not protesting on their own behalf but on behalf of everyone in the jungle, that they will not stop until everyone receives justice.

I gather it was a bit of a dialogue of the deaf, with the people from the prefect's office leaving feeling completely baffled at the Iranians' stance. But I wonder if that's how it was.

On Friday afternoon word reached us that the prefect's office had decided that it would not proceed with the destruction of the northern part of the camp. Indeed, it would work with the volunteer groups providing support and assistance to the community to ensure that the camp got the resources it needed. To this end, L'Auberge and the other groups that provide support to the camp are conducting a fresh census in the coming week to determine how many people now live in the northern part of the camp, so that support can be directed at the most vulnerable.

Now this is good news. And it seems to have come out of the blue. But I wonder...

Could there be a connection between the meeting of the Iranians and the prefect's office on Wednesday and the prefect's announcement on Friday? I have no evidence to support this, just a hunch that there is something powerful about the witness of the powerless to those with power that turns events in unexpected ways. Paul said something about God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 'God chose the the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.'

It seems to me that this explains what happened in Calais this week: the nothings of the world nullified what is and God's wily way of working through weakness and insignificant things changed the plans the powerful made to silence the powerless. God once again shows himself to be sneakily at work where he's not invited or welcomed - except by those who have no other prayer but that he'll come to their aid in their distress.

Just a thought...

Lessons for Europe in owning responsibility and moving forward

A lot's happened in the jungle since I last blogged. There have been times over the past couple of weeks when I thought that the community would be sent to the four winds as the Calais Prefecture moved to sweep the camp away. But that hasn't happened for reasons that I don't fully understand but which  I think are profoundly linked to Christian witness (I'll explain that in a second posting...)

Having won the court case, the Prefecture moved fairly swifly to demolish the southern half of the jungle. While this began three weeks ago very aggressively, they remained true to their commitment not to demolish community buildings such as schools, the church, the youth centre and the library. These now stand in splendid isolation in a charred wasteland that used to be a vibrant community.

And although they began aggessively, in the second week of the clearances the CRS, the armoured French riot police, began to allow volunteers and residents to move shelters that had been earmarked for deomolition. So when we visited on the second Thurdsay, we witnessed amicable negotiations going on between clutches of volunteers and squads of CRS over which shelters could be moved from the clearance zone to another part of the camp. Through the day a steady stream of walking groups carrying someone's home wended their way down the jungle's high street from the southern to the northern part of the camp. Several shelters were also moved on low-loaders.

Visitng the northern part of the camp later in the day we found acres of newly inhabited land, home to rows of shelters and new residents settling into their new environment. It was a sight to put a smile on our faces in the early spring sunshine.

Of course, it was almost inevitable that cramming so many people of so many different nations so closely together could result in friction, neighbour disputes, turf wars of one kind or another. And sadly, the week after I'd seen so many people moving, word reached us that there had been a big fight between Sudanese and Afghan residents. It happened on a wednesday evening, the day before I was due to visit.

So, I have to say, that on that Thursday as I appraoched the camp, I did so wih some trepidation. I expected there to be a heavy police presence;  expected an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, where volunteers like me would maybe be less welcome than we have been. I needn't have worried. We passed the handful of CRS at the entrance and strode into the usual vibrant and bustling scene that we have come to expect.

We were greeted by members of our team and some community leaders with smiles and offers of tea. But it was clear that there the events of the previous evening had left a mark that needed to be addressed. So in the early afternoon we were invited to attend to a meeting at which the Sudanese and Afghans were going to resolve their differences. I asked one of my colleagues whether it was wise for us to be there and he replied that it would be good to have a group of people present who were not angry; that perhaps our calmness would lower the tensions in the tent where the meeting was to happen. So we all duly pitched up, removed our shoes (the space being used is a mosque) and sat around the sides of the large tent.

We needn't have worried. One by one Sudanese and Afghan community leaders rose to do two things. The first was to say that the unfortunate events of the previous evening had been everyone's fault, including that of the community leaders. I have to say that seeing gentle men who have never lifted their voice in anger, let alone threatened someone with a rock, owning responsibility for what had happened was extremely humbling. I reflected on the fact that as we met in this makeshift mosque, a hundred or so miles away in Brussels, EU leaders were meeting to pass the buck, blame others for the situation Europe finds itself in for the migration crisis and cobble together a solution that treats the people gathered around me as packages to sent here and there at the whim of a politician. What I saw in the mosque was true servant leadership of a kind I rearely experience or offer in the UK

The second thing my friends all said was that they were determined to work together for as long as the camp remained to ensure its peace, to ensure that it operated in the interests of all its residents, to ensure that no one lived in fear of their neighbour. They reminded each other that they had each fled places where they'd lived in fear of their neighbours and their governments. They needed to ensure that having come all this way, no one felt such fear again. So they called for others from each community to come forward to support the efforts of the leaders to create mechanisms to ensure the camp runs smoothly, that everyone's needs are met in food distribution, that no one goes without shoes or warm clothes, that no one feels unheard and resorts to violernce to make themselves heard.

After an hour, during which time everyone who wanted to speak seemed to be able to so so, the members of our team were asked if had anything to add. It seemed to me that it wasn't our place to say anything so all I said was that I was hunbled and moved to see the communities working to settle their differences and work together. After which the Afghan Iman was invited to lead in prayer (I have to say that he could have passed for a pentecostal pastor, so fervent and passionate was his invocation of God's blessing on this decision!).

And then everyone stood and moved around the room embracing everyone else and wishing them health and happiness and good fortune. It was an amazing moment. It reminded me that the jungle is more than merely a place, it's an idea; a concept rather than a location. What has been created by the community leaders and their willing communities aspires to be an expression of humanity at its best in the midst of continent of indifference and alienation.

I left the meeting feeling humbled and elated (a common reaction to life in the jungle).

I was also forced to reflect on why I had felt so anxious when I heard the news on wednesday night of the trouble. I had felt an immediate concern for my friends, people from Syrian and Sudan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan who have made their home there - would they be ok? What would they need in the morning when I turned up? How could  best help and support them? I had immediate anxiety for volunteers I have come to know and admire - would they be safe? would they be able to do their work? how would they cope with the fact of violence happening around them? I realised that I was connected to this community, that it's pain was my pain, that it's anxiety was mine. And I recalled that the Bible says something about this....

And this led to another reflection that I'll blog abaout presently.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The finely crafted art of not settling down

Sometime towards the turn of the millennium, I was speaking at a conference in the south of England. In between sessions I wondered into the shop looking for something to stimulate my rather torpid mind. I flicked through a couple of books and then thumbed through the CD rack until I came upon a white cover with a charcoal grey seascape on it.

It was called Free for Good by a band called Vigilantes of Love. I had vaguely heard of them but not heard anything by them. I bought the CD on the basis of the cover (cardboard tri-fold) and the description under the title of the first track on the lyric sheet: ‘everything from the ghettoization of faith music to yearning for my wife.’

I fell in love before I heard a note.

I took it to my car, put it in the player and went for a long drive listening over and over. The music was a revelation. I fell in love again. Here was a song writer of rare talent with a sharp focus on what was right and wrong with being people of faith. And here was a band that played up a storm.

So began a twenty-year journey with Bill Mallonee. His songs have sound-tracked sessions I’ve led at conferences, services I’ve conducted at my church; more importantly, they have enriched my evolving faith and grasp on just how it is I should be living in these troubled times. Like Mallonee,

I always felt the world was “off axis.” Not “the thing it should be.” I knew early on “I” was part of the problem, as well.

At their best his songs have provoked engagement with this world and the God whose shadow is cast across it. They have always entertained, made me smile and tap my feet. Of late his music has acquired a fresh depth. A string of albums from 2012’s Amber Waves to last year’s Lands and Peoples reveal a song writer at the peak of his powers.

And now comes Slow Trauma, an album he suggests is much taken up with death and the end of things. And yet on first acquaintance, it’s a bright work awash with mellow guitars and brisk songs about life on the road, the struggle to make ends meet and how we might hold love together.

On the basis of this work I’ve decided to avoid Denver cause ‘there ain’t nothing for you now.’ But I’ll keep listening to the track for the languid, note perfect guitar solo that leads back into the refrain, ‘doldrums in’s time you left this town’.

But leaving is ok because this is not an album about settling down. Mallonee might be reaching that age when most of us begin to think about slowing down, putting our feet up on the porch and letting life come to us (if it must). But he is always straining to see ‘over that last hill’ (as he sings on the final track) to see where the new set of wheels you get on the king’s highway will take you. Even dying is not really the end of it because we’re just waiting for the stone to be rolled away (presumably so we can get on with the journey).

And it’s this sense of restlessly moving on that brings us to the spiritual heart of this lovely record. The four line, one-minute opener alerts us to the fact that ‘what’s gonna save you and what makes you smile/sometimes, they are one and the same.’ It’s a reminder that being on the side of the angels sets our toes tapping and puts a smile on our faces; and if it doesn’t, then it’s because we’ve not heard God quite right.

Mallonee has always been at his best when he’s looking at the world and thinking about how faith helps us make sense of it. It seems to me that this is what Only Time will tell is about; is there an economic miracle round the corner or does the seeking of fame and fortune always result in ‘parcelling out the earth with barbed wire and hard sell’? It’s a key question of our age and one that is not answered in election manifestoes but in the choices our souls make.

Not that the church has much light to shed on this (sadly). ‘You cannot speak in tongues if you’ve got nothing to say.’ Perhaps there’s more enlightenment to be found on the journey ‘down these sad, back streets of doubt to a new and brighter day/waiting for the stone to be rolled away’. (what a great line that is!)

Slow Trauma is neither slow nor traumatic although it chronicles the pain of living with our eyes open. But it does so with a heart alive to the rumour of God out on the road. And it does so to an immaculate soundtrack of beautifully judged guitars, a great rhythm section, and gravelly rich vocals (all by Mallonee), occasionally supported by Maria Rose’s keyboards. The whole effect is dazzling. It’s a journey I’ll be wanting to take time and again because it gets better every time.

[Thanks to Bill for a pre-release copy of the album on which this review is based. Slow Trauma is released on 15 March and is available from his website]

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A sad day for humanity

Well, the bad news from calais is that a whole bunch of my friends are about to made homeless; people who I've come to admire even love, who have proved themselves to be resourceful and resilient, who have made community in an ash heap that is a beacon of hope to anyone who'll pay attention are to be cast to the four winds.

The court in Lille has given the go-ahead to the evictions from the soputhern part of the jungle announced by the French authorities last week and challenged by L'Auberge des Migrants and Secours Catholique.

The authorities say that they will not send in the bulldozers; that they will preserve places of worship, the school rooms, library. But they said this before the last set of demolitions and proceeded to demolish both a church and a mosque. Not surprisingly the community leaders in the camp don't believe the promises.

This act of vandalism might yet be stopped if L'Auberge and Secours appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. But maybe I'm clutching at straws.

Europe isn't exactly covering itself in glory in its handling of the refugee crisis. The Austrians and Balkan states are leaving Greece, already reduced to penury by the troika's economic demands, to be turned into 'a permanent warehouse for souls' as they build ever higher fences to keep people out. The UK stands on the side-lines wringing its hands and doing sod all to meet the needs of the desperate millions milling across our continent.

As I was coming back from the camp yesterday, I heard a poem on the radio written by Somali poet Worsan Shire. You can find the whole thing here. But here's the extract that caught my attention:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

So, what are we prepared to do to support those who have made this desperate, perilous journey?

Friday, February 12, 2016

You may say I'm a dreamer....

On my return from Calais on Wednesday evening I got into a Whatsapp chat with a friend of mine who I'd expected to see in the jungle but wasn't there.

He's a lovely Afghan man, a pharmacist who spent a lot time in jungle books, helping people access the resources and making tea and coffee for anyone who visited. He disappeared frollowing a falling-out with a neighbour (this kind of stuff happens the world over, I guess) and he told me he's in Dieppe on his own.

I felt a curious frisson of worry for him. There he was alone in a port city away from any friends and networks of support he had built up in his time in the jungle. But then I thought, he's made the journey from Afghanistan; he's crossed hostile terrain, put up with antagonism and worse from border guards, people traffickers, other travellers, local populations. He's coped with the daily struggle for food and shelter, clothing and warmth on a 5,000 mile trek, so he can probably cope with Dieppe.

But I still fear for his safety.

No one should have to make this kind of journey. No one should be in such terror for their lives that they cannot live and thrive in their own country. That might sound awfully utopian, you may say I'm a dreamer (as someone sang), but I wonder how many of us have had to move because we fear for our lives; how many of us have fled the carpet bombing of our community; how many of us have lived in fear of the secret police knocking in the night, the neighbourhood vigilantes coming with guns, the government seeking our lives.

I will happily be called utopian for believing that people ought to be secure in their beds, at peace in their lands, protected by their government and able to grow into the potential that God has placed in each one us. I will happily be called a dreamer because I want to find my friend and give him a hug.

Is there hope in the darkness engufling my friends?

It’s a while since I’ve blogged about my now weekly visits to the camp that increasingly looks like a suburb of a Calais. The so-called jungle is home to a group of friends struggling to hold their lives together in the teeth of sometimes the indifference and often the hostility of their neighbours. On the day I visited this week, tensions were high and nerves were frayed; people joked and told stories but their eyes and body language indicated that they had deep forebodings about the immediate future.

Soon after we left and were safely chilling with coffee and chocolate as the train rattled back to England, heavily armed men raided one of the cafes we use. One of my friends was beaten and kicked as his business was searched and semi-ransacked. The perpetrators of this crime were the CRS, the French riot police, partially payed for by British tax payers to keep the peace of Calais and the security of our borders. I felt sick as I read Tom’s report of the incident the morning after and then I felt fury rising from the pit of my stomach.

So, what’s happening?

The tensions are rising because the story is being put about that the French government wants to close and demolish the camp by the end of March. If necessary, they will use the army to get this done.
It gives the regular meeting of the community leaders, volunteers and ACTED (the French NGO sent in by the courts to make up for the French government’s callous disregard for the humanitarian needs of the 5,000 or so residents of the camp) something of an edge. Two weeks ago, this meeting had opened with two announcements. One was that the street lighting would be repaired by tomorrow. The other was that the water was now safe to drink as it came from mains that ran along the Chemin des Dunes at the back of the camp. There was muted cheering at both these announcements.  I couldn’t help but think of the matters arising section of a council meeting in any English town. It all seemed so normal, so matter-of-fact.

There were two visitors at this meeting, one from Amnesty International and one from UNHCR. Both had come to gather statistics and stories. They were met with storm of indignant disbelief. Voice after voice was raised asking how many times the refugees have to tell their story before things change. A Syrian asked when will people take seriously the daily threat of violence from those they call the fascists – supporters of France’s Front Nationale who on a nightly basis are attacking anyone from the jungle they happen to see out and about in Calais. A north African community leader asked when all these organisations will have enough detail to take action. ‘it seems that human rights in France are just for white people,’ he said; ‘you people come for 40 minutes; we’re here for months. Some of our people have disappeared, some have died; there’s no protection for us here while you gather statistics.’

I felt a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered woman from Amnesty. But I share the frustration of my friends. Too often they’ve told their story in the hope that things will change. Too often, nothing happens.

There is huge anger in the camp that the police do not protect the residents from the fascists. An Afghan leader, speaking in slow measured tones, said, ‘We tell our people not to fight the police but the police do not protect us from the fascists. Sometimes the police seem to egg the fascists on, standing aside while they beat our people.’ I hang my head in shame as my tax pounds are being spent putting this inept and vicious police force to work around the jungle.

Before the meeting ended, people from L’Auberge and Secours Catholique announced that they were seeking a court order to prevent any more demolitions until everyone in the camp had an offer of proper help and accommodation. The man from Secours stressed he was not defending the camp as such but rather the right of everyone in it for decent housing, care and dignity. Of course, the French authorities would retort that they have built a container village for 1500 and have secure assessment centres across the country where people will be fed while they are processed.

An Ethiopian man voiced the opinion of many that everyone here wants to go to England; who is helping with that? He added that no one wants to go into the containers because you can’t leave that prison at night and so you cannot try your luck at the border.

A week later, the community meeting is more subdued but still pre-occupied with the same issues. There were no good news announcements at the start of the meeting; indeed, it was reported that the street lights had only worked for a day and that the water supply had gone off to one section of the camp. But these were not the major concerns of the community leaders. ‘Where are the missing?’ asked one; ‘why are the police not protecting us from the fascists?’ asked another. Even the Syrian interpreter for the meeting speaks of not feeling safe in Calais. You can cut the fear with a knife.
And Syrians are talking of leaving, not to try to get to Britain but to go home to Syria to fight. Over hot sweet chai – the best in the camp? – my friend says, ‘I’m dying here, I might as well go home and die fighting.’ It fills me with despair to think that it’s come to this, that after a 5000 mile, year-long journey in search of hope and freedom, the only way forward is go home and take your chances with Assad, Isis, the Russians, the coalition, Al Nusra, the Iranians, the Turks and the kurds.

But the building goes on. A youth centre has opened with space for young people to hang out and play games. Tom is building a centre for several of his activities, including his NA meetings, where people want to kick habits acquired as a result of their flight from terror. It was good to see him and Johannes in animated conversation over chai in the Kabul CafĂ©. The theatre space is thriving and the education rooms – including the new ones built since the demolitions of a fortnight ago – are full of eager learners. 

In the midst of death, the camp is in life; where there’s despair, humans can’t help but sow hope.
But even as I write this, word arrives that more of the camp has been earmarked for the bull dozer, including St Michael’s church. The fear ratchets up, spirits are crushed, and an impotent rage rises in the guts of those of us who spend our time supporting this community but aren’t permanent residents. It’s possible that the camp will be destroyed by the beginning of March and that its residents will have been scattered to the four winds yet again, alone to take their chances in a Europe that doesn’t give a damn about them. It breaks my heart.