Written for the Quaker gathering at Friends Meeting House, Truro
How we see the refugee is how we see ourselves.
It seems to me we live in a world full of fear at the moment. Fear that is bred from a misunderstanding of ownership. We are educated and nurtured in this country to understand ownership in a very personal way. There are a number of cultural goals that are set for us from a very early age. Goals such as status i.e what position in society we should achieve, property i.e. what place we should occupy in society, and relevance i.e. what role we should take within society. We are conditioned to believe these are our goals, and that they will in turn give us all that we need to live a healthy and valued existence. In fact, our own identity is formed and given value by these three indicators of status, property and relevance. Our very identity is intrinsically connected to what we own in society, where we are in society and who we relate to in society.
This is where fear creeps in; when we believe that these three pedestals of our existence are deemed to be under threat in some way. The fear comes from knowing that there are some in the world who do not conform to this understanding of value and purpose. It is the case, I think, that those who do not attain these goals are not as valued in society as those who do. In fact, to give people such things as status, property and relevance with no forseen effort on their part, would mean some kind of break down in social order. Why should we give them anything when we have worked so hard to achieve these things ourselves? Rhetoric, such as that of Nigel Farage, the self-proclaimed ambassador for the decent hard working individual, is an example of how fear disregards compassion for the sake of these three pedestals of our modern culture.
The refugee crisis is the tragedy of our modern time, it is a redefining moment for Western Culture. It is redefining because it calls into question the three indicators of value and worth in our society. It threatens to breakdown what has built the culture that we live in.
Our response to the refugee, if compassionate, self-sacrificing and life-giving subverts what has helped establish our own identities, and national identity. But this is critical, since it is indeed reshaping and reforming our identity for the good.
Our identity should not be formed by status, property, or relativity; but instead be formed by mutuality, justice and righteousness.
In our current system - status is a product of capitalism and competition. Neither are inherently bad things, but taken too far they quickly entertain the idea that those who succeed are worth more than those who fail.
Mutuality is a product of compassion, empathy and support. Which assures us that there are some things more valuable about every human being. With mutuality as an indicator of worth, the refugee becomes us – we choose not to be fearful, or under threat but instead see ourselves in the pain and hurt of the refugee, because of mutual love. Mutuality gives no time for ‘us’ and ‘them’ terminology but only entertains the truth that if you are hurting then I am hurting too. In a world of individualism, egoism and self-aggrandisement – the refugee reminds us of our vulnerability, our susceptibility and our weakness, and therefore in mutual love we should look to offer ourselves as they have done. Mutuality breaks down any barriers of status and encourages us to look into the eyes of one another to see who we are really are. When we do so we learn that those who are said to be our enemies are in fact our brothers and sisters.
In our society, property is seen as an indicator of value and worth, a measurement of success. We work hard to obtain the material things in life, and therefore they become icons and trophies of our labour. Working hard is a virtue, the part we play in building up society is important – and there is nothing wrong with being rewarded appropriately. However, we have switched the purpose of our hard labour from the building up of society to the obtaining of possessions. And our identity has switched appropriately. Celebrity is celebrated. Wealth is the goal. Property is the target. Community orientated vocations are way down the pecking order. Refuse collection, primary care staff, education, the health service, farming and fisheries, manufacturing have succumbed to the powers of banking, footballers, and energy company execs.
Instead of property being the target of our existence and the shaper of who we are, maybe justice would form our identity instead. Justice is a word that is so easily misunderstood. The word Justice has been damaged over time by our own society. It is now a product of fear. Justice has become a word associated with judgement, punishment, penal discipline and sentencing. The Ministry of Justice is more to do with law and order than actually to do with justice.
Justice is more to do with fairness, equality, likeness and impartiality. If there was one outstanding theme in the bible, for example, then I would say it is justice. Time and time again the objects of concern for God’s people were the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor. Justice is seen in the bible as the defender of the most vulnerable, irrespective of their status, property or familial relativity. However, it is not because they have no status, property or familial relativity that they are deemed to be in need of justice it is because they are simply in need, and that they are human beings.
For the refugee justice should look the same – their status as human beings and that they are in need is the only excuse we need.
When we share the struggles of our refugee brothers and sisters, we are not giving them status, property or relevance, we are simply treating them as human beings, in mutual love and with justice. If we make status, property and relevance our gifts then we are just creating disharmony and an unhealthy power dynamic (we are the giver, they are the receiver), and we are in danger of making the object of our task our egos, and satisfaction. True justice bypasses any social markers of value and disregards our own ego desires, and challenges us to give all that we have to protect the humanity of the other.
Lastly the word relevance is concerned with how we relate to one another, but its goal is concerned with obtaining prestige and respect. When I am introduced to someone else I am often announced as ‘this is Jeremy and he is a vicar’. What I do is an important part of who I am. How many times have you heard someone say when asked what they do – ‘oh I’m just a house wife.’ Or ‘I’m just bricklayer’ or ‘I’m just this or just that.’
The role we play in society has a level of importance if we are to be concerned with status, property and relevance. In this model the refugee challenges the position we have because the fear we are supposed to feel undermines our own worth. If instead we thought of righteousness as the indicator of worth and value then the way we would see the refugee situation would be very different.
Righteousness is another word that is misunderstood in today’s society. In the past it has been associated with piety, purity, and church going. It has been in the same camp as religiosity, and often, pomposity and self-importance of the church. However, the true meaning of righteousness is about being in a right relationship with one another, and with God. Being in the right kind of relationship with your fellow brothers and sisters means that righteousness is more to do with peace, equity and even-handedness than to do with religious piety. Righteousness is better named as primary justice. Since if we had the right relationship with our brother and sisters in Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine then we would have no need for the kind of justice I described just now. The quartet of the vulnerable (orphan, poor, widow and immigrant) would not exist. When a van carries aid to Calais, or you put £10 on justgiving account for homeless of the refugee fund you are living righteously. When you occupy your mind with the sufferings of your brothers and sisters in Greece, Lebanon or Jordan – you are living righteously.
I believe, we need to build a society that is formed and shaped not by our goals for status, property and relativity – but for mutuality, justice and righteousness. The refugee crisis is the greatest tragedy of our generation, it is redefining us – we have to decide in which world we belong. The celebrity, materialistic self-serving world, that is hell bent on protecting and defending our achievements of status, property and relevance. Or, the one that retains a humanity of mutuality, justice and right relationships.
I’m not sure who said it originally but it’s true, ‘kindness is just love with her workboots on.’ I saw a lot of kindness today.
Back in January I attended an open meeting at County Hall to discuss the refugee situation and how Cornwall could respond with a warm and kind welcome to our Syrian brothers and sisters being resettled here. At that meeting Manda Brookman shared her vision for a more connected Cornwall, a more collaborative compassion, where those who had a heart for welcoming refugees and those helping to tackle the crisis overseas could work more closely and more efficiently together. The idea also led to the opinion that all that had been achieved (by the many many groups around Cornwall) is really worth celebrating. There have been a lot of workboots, a lot of kindnesses and, dare I say it, a lot of learning too. So, part of this vision was to share all those things with added space for gratitude and thankfulness. Manda’s idea came to its fruition today in the event ‘Cornwall: a million stories of sanctuary’.
There was a host of contributions, filled with extraordinary and very moving accounts of courage, compassion, and sacrifice. The day moved quickly with a gentle efficiency that reflected the care and respect that Manda and others had for the subject matter. There was also a shared commonality that never outweighed the desire to learn more and to keep to a sense of openness - knowing our understanding is always shifting.
If you were there today, I wonder whether there was a particular talk/speaker that stood out for you. For me, there was something precious and valuable to be found in all of them, but I guess there were two or three that were significant for me, they tended to be the ones that encouraged and celebrated but also had an uncomfortableness about it too. Those that had a wake-up call, a punch in the gut; those that had for us - the parable for our time.
Paul Haines spoke about his Peace Walk from Rome to Jerusalem. On his journey he met a number of refugees, as well as the special people who sought to help them. There was a profound irony in his experience of meeting those who were walking away from war and conflict, while he walked the opposite way for peace. I am in awe of Paul’s commitment and dedication to peace, it reminded me of two things; firstly, we can all do something – as Ruby Brookman has said ‘this is everything about everyone’. No one is left out… of either the problem or the solution. Walking is something some of us can do, and what a powerful thing it can be. Secondly, that real change is sometimes a long journey. Even when we want the revolution we sometimes have to wait for the process of evolution to cut its course. Pauls’ journey taught me that we need to be in this for the long game, it’s lifelong.
Baraa Ehassan Kouja, curator of the ‘From Syria with Love’ exhibition (a collection of artwork by Syrian children whilst resident in a Lebanese refugee camp) spoke about what life is like in Syria at the moment. His words still resonate in my mind. His words were intensely provocative, honest and unfiltered. Baraa was able to share stories of individual people caught up in the conflict, the tales were offensive and violent and yet not left without hope. For Baraa had made that all important step that we ourselves hope to make; the step from acknowledging the horror (and even the part we have played in it) to a hope of another world. I was immensely inspired by Baraa and all that he has been able to do, he represents in my mind a future I long to see. Not some pedestalled idyllic future but simply a more compassionate one.
Amina travelled from London to be with us. The best way to describe Amina’s talk is one of testimony and witness. Amina shared her experiences of travelling from Somalia as a child refugee and starting a new life in London. What struck me about Amina was her sheer ability to reflect, on what was an incredibly traumatic time in her life. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that must be for her. Yet, through what many would naturally want to suppress Amina finds a force for good. Today Amina shares her story to raise awareness of the challenges facing asylum seekers as they seek to resettle and learn a new way of life. A timely lesson for all of us as we seek to welcome Syrian refugee families to Cornwall.
Alongside these three talks we had the awesome enthusiasm of Ruby Ingleheart, and the amazing gumption and initiative of Shelley and Liz as they spoke about their volunteer trip to Lesvos. We heard about the experience and wisdom of Tam whose work overseas continues to inform the work we seek to do here. We heard from Matthew Barton from Cornwall Council about the resettlement program and the Council’s work with START and volunteer groups to ensure that we can provide the best possible welcome we can. We heard from Magda Machlarz who heads up the Cornwall Refugee Resettlement Network and their work in supporting START and Cornwall Council.
Penzance, Wadebridge (Amanda Pennington), Truro (All Saints Church) and Bude (Mary Whibley) as well as the Eden Project were all represented, and shared their updates and thoughts on the situation too.
Someone wrote recently that when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. There is a lot of fear around at the moment, particularly regarding immigration, and more so for welcoming refugees. Ultimately the fear derives from the human desire to protect and secure our way of life, which isn’t intrinsically bad, it just shouldn’t ever justify the alienation, exclusion, and apathy that we are seeing today. The three words I’ve taken away from today’s event are compassion, comfort and companionship. Compassion (meaning with suffering) because true compassion is not about us being the giver and someone else being the receiver. Compassion requires us to break free of any notion of superiority or inferiority and instead attempt to hold to the truth that to show compassion is to come alongside our brothers and sisters and share in the suffering.
The same is true of the word companionship (meaning with bread). When we act as a companion to our Syrian, Eritrean, Iraqi, or Afghan brothers and sisters, we enter into the act of breaking bread. When we share bread with a friend we acknowledge that we are both in need of that bread. There is a mutuality of need and necessity. It pushes us into a radical space where we are changed too. As I’m sure you know volunteering and charity work when done well is never one way – it shapes us and form us for the better.
Lastly the word comfort (meaning with strength). When we comfort someone you are offering the strength that they need. This is the only word of the three that is one-directional. Comforting is the aid work and help that I know Cornwall has offered and does really well. Cornwall has many strengths to offer, she is a remarkable place with many strong compassionate people that care deeply about life, about the wellbeing of her people, and I am convinced that when our brothers and sisters from Syria settle here they will find Cornwall to be a comforting, compassionate and welcoming place. My prayer is that the Syrian families moving to Cornwall will have a renewed strength, to begin and prosper in this special land; that they will know the kindness of the people of Cornwall and truly live as one of us.
Revd Jeremy Putnam
You might say why have we been to Calais?
We went because of you .You have seen on the T.V. in the papers and in the Media generally the plight of the many Refugees there. The numbers have doubled since we were there in August. Your response was overwhelming. Donations of tents, food, blankets, sleeping bags and much much more. We had to move some the donation gifts from the hall of All Saints into the main Church for our volunteers to be able to sort and pack all that was given. This happened over two work days. We took over 500 Shoe Boxes full of personal items and food. These boxes were to give to individual refugees. Forty boxes of Blankets-Coats-Shoes-Sleeping Bags and about fifty tents and tarpaulins, all this plus many practical items. All these donations were from anonymous people who’s caring and giving spoke of their generosity and feelings.
To cover transport and travelling expenses many also gave donations of money.
On Wednesday the 25th November we packed the van, the longest transit made and on Thursday we travelled to Folkestone and met up with two other groups, one group from Launceston, one van and one from Somerset with two vans. We travelled to Calais arriving at 9.OO a.m. European Time, having left at 6.30 GMT. In Calais we unloaded all the items except the Shoe Boxes and reloaded the vans with all items such as 800 blankets, 600 sleeping bags, sleeping mats etc., these went to the refugee camp and our party distributed them. We returned to the warehouse for lunch and refilling the vans.
In the afternoon we returned to the camp with tents pallets, tarpaulins and rope and much more. By the time we had finished the distributing it was dark.
What were the conditions like? Very simply, cold, wet, muddy, smelly and crowded, could it be worse? No.
Did your and our efforts make a difference? Yes. You only had to see the smiles on the faces of those who received the gifts to know we made a difference and gave them hope that someone cares enough to do something.
Colin, David and myself felt very blessed to be able to deliver your gifts of Love and Hope to so many people.
So what next, well we are still digesting what we have learnt and are in contact with the people we met and who work there work 24/7. We are listening to the day by day assessment of how to best support them with the needs of so many of our fellow human beings in such difficult circumstances.
So watch this space- you can and do make a difference.
Keep in touch by checking two web sites…. www.asht.org.uk and www.care4calais.org
Your brother in Christ
While Germany and Sweden are building camps, providing aid, and taking refugees into their own homes, the British Government is building walls, fences and deploying guard dogs. Despite all this the overwhelming majority of people in this country are very eager to show compassion. Surely David Cameron and –dare I say it - our Archbishops can see that we must put aside the politics, statistics and scapegoating and assert our intention to help these people in need.
With your help, and the help of many other likeminded people All Saints Church took 100 boxes of food, clothing, shoes and toiletries to Calais to give out to the refugees. People donated nappies, children’s toys, shoes, blankets and tents. On sorting all the donations I was joined by teenagers on their summer holidays to do their bit! I received letters and messages of good will with donations to cover petrol and transport. It was incredibly moving to see the generosity of others in action; it made me think that there are some people in Britain who would even be willing to welcome the refugee in their own home too, and to treat them with the dignity they deserve, as a friend, instead of an interloper.
Jesus, and therefore we also, belong to a people indelibly marked by stories of Exodus and exile. Like the millions of Syrians today, Jesus and his family were forced to flee their home and find refuge. In Jesus’ case it was Egypt, the very place their own ancestors fled in the time of Moses. Today it seems that some Christians in the West act as if a comfortable existence is their divine right, that for some reason we have earned the right to take up a higher place in humanity, and to protect our privileged status at all costs. But closing off our borders to the needy, the oppressed, the persecuted, the desperate and the displaced of this world is an anathema to the Gospel of Jesus.
Jesus was forced to wonder from place to place, as King of a world hostile to him. He was ejected from the Holy City, the place his own Heavenly Father was said to inhabit, and then crucified on a rubbish dump. How many more children will wash up on the shores of Turkey until we realise enough is enough.
How many more debates will we have about net migration figures and EU border controls until we see that our own humanity is drifting away with the bodies of dead refugees?
We are one family under God, a single Body formed in the image of Christ and shaped by the Holy Spirit. It is my hope that our recent project to help the refugees in Calais, will enliven our commitment to look for the image of Christ in the migrant, the sojourner, the outcast, the refugee, and in all of us. So that together we can reclaim a humanity for those with an outstretched hand, both theirs and ours. Jeremy
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.