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
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.