side by side

Lately I’ve been reflecting on barriers. The truth is that you can build a wall out of anything. Some materials are better than others, sure, but a wall of bibles will keep people out as surely as one of bricks. Of course, if we start reading the words that make up our walls our only option will be to welcome.

Brother David talked about a recent encounter with a Syrian man who was staying at Taizé at the time. One day he came to the family’s home to invite them to an upcoming community gathering, but was met with a much more powerful invitation to community:

“His reaction was to show me a painting he had done yesterday. [There was] a Muslim tower with an imam on the top and then another tower, a Christian tower, with a cross and a priest. The imam and the priest were shaking hands but on the bottom there was the devil trying to separate them.”

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The steeple and minaret both reach up to God, side by side. And as Muslims and Christians, as believers of most any creed, we pursue peace and love together. Differences in our beliefs and culture offer opportunities for growth, and we should embrace them. Both Brother David and the Syrian man saw their friendship in this light. Instead of recoiling upon contact, the two men regarded each other with open eyes and learned from their experience.

Brother David explained, “It’s very enriching, this coming to the other one in an open way, just trying to understand what he’s doing. We have different traditions, different visions, but they touch at many points, and it’s very beautiful to discover these points where we are very close.”

Faith can be warped into a weapon, but its instinct is to embrace. In the coming weeks I will be working to fashion my faith accordingly.


Photo credit to Maciej Biłas

taizé

When I arrived in Paris, my backpack did not arrive with me. In fact, it did not arrive for my entire five-week research trip, but at the time I expected to have it within a few days. So I filled out the appropriate paperwork and was given some necessaries to last until the bag could be located, and I left the airport for my destination. The Taizé community could not have been a more welcoming place for me, stressed as I was, and I quickly learned that hospitality is its legacy.

The community began during World War II when Father Roger moved from Switzerland to create a refuge in Southeast France for those who were fleeing from the Nazi advance. A brotherhood of ecumenical clergymen formed around him, taking vows of poverty and celibacy, creating the community that exists today. Now it looks a little bit different: Every year, thousands of young people come to visit and take part in the simplistic, peaceful life of the Taizé monks. The brothers still remember their foundation as a refuge, and continue to host refugees who come from far away and have nowhere to go.

Brother David, a dark-haired, bright-eyed man from Portugal, spoke to me about the refugees who are currently living at Taizé. In the past few years, the influx of refugees into France has increased dramatically, leading to the rapid growth of the camp at Calais, which has since been disbanded. Seeing the tremendous need just miles away, the brothers of Taizé offered to host ten asylum seekers from Sudan and Afghanistan, providing food and shelter and other basic needs as well as aiding them in the asylum process.

I learned from Brother David that neither the members of the Taizé community nor the refugees themselves knew anything about each other before their first meeting. The refugees turned out to be Muslim, and they happened to find themselves living in a Christian community. “But religion is not a barrier,” Brother David said with conviction, “We all are believers . . . it brings us together.” In fact, he spoke of the relationship that was born between the inhabitants of Taizé and the newcomers from Sudan and Afghanistan in terms of enrichment and growth. This encounter was an opportunity, not a burden, and the rest of our conversation illustrated that truth to me.

Religion is not a barrier.

But for now I’m stuck. Religion is not a barrier. Those words rang in my ears, and they still do. Everything I have seen lately seems to suggest the opposite. If religion is about coming together, why do we let it come between us? And if not religion, where are all of these walls coming from? These are my questions, and I think they will remain questions for the time being. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Let’s take some time to reflect, and then we will pick back up with Brother David’s story.


Photo credit to Maciej Biłas

walls

On Friday, President Trump issued an executive order that has resulted in the exclusion of a large part of our extended human family from this (rather big, prosperous) chunk of borrowed land. Many will say that this order is a matter of national security, and others will fire back that it is an act of blatant xenophobia, or the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Different eyes will see different truths, but the most basic truth of the situation is that there are many people who are no longer allowed into the United States. So, as we become increasingly obsessed with building walls and closing borders, I think it is important to reflect on the lives and stories that are shut out.

I have mentioned the research project that I embarked on last summer to examine the role of the global, ecumenical Church in the refugee crisis. There is a lot that I learned from that project which I have not yet shared, and a handful of stories that need to be told. In my next posts I will endeavor to share my limited and evolving understanding of some aspects of the refugee crisis, my place in it, and that of the Church.

For now I am praying for these walls to come tumbling down.

 

listen

It’s been a few months since I have posted, but right now I am craving conversation. There is a lot of ranting and lecturing, finger-pointing and condemnation going around right now, but not much conversation.

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I scroll through my News Feed, dragging pictures and articles past. Fewer and fewer make me smile, and some are so heavy that I can’t keep scrolling. I read and try to make sense of an event or idea, try to digest some dreadful story that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Next is a post shared by a friend–38 comments. For some reason I always have to click and read through the arguments that too often consist of name-calling and self-righteous putdowns. So much of the time it’s just talking past each other; proving ourselves right is the only real objective.

We just don’t listen anymore.

I think conversations about the important, controversial questions of our day are essential, but what I am seeing more and more does not resemble conversation. It feels like fighting. We speak to win and listen only to refute. To me that is not listening. It’s like I’m ducking and dodging my way through an ideological battlefield every time I open Facebook. And yeah, sometimes I want to throw my own verbal jab. It’s tempting to rattle off a few lines on my keyboard, put someone who disagrees with me in their place. It is so easy, almost instinctive, to pick a side and feed the fight. It grows and grows and our words become vicious and their damage permanent. Bridges burn and relationships break and with all this shouting and winning and losing it becomes nearly impossible to just listen. 

It’s a new year, and for me it’s the start of a new semester. In my relationships, in my classes, in my prayers and on my social media, I am going to try my best to listen. Maybe you will listen with me, and maybe one day we’ll even have a conversation.

 


[1] https://www.pinterest.com/fairielover/i-love-calvin-and-hobbes/

 

the jungle

Since the end of my Camino, I have been traveling in Munich, Copenhagen, and Paris, and now I am waiting for a bus in Calais, France. My bus will take me across the English Channel, and with a quick flash of my passport and a few other documents, I will be allowed to enter the country.

Here in Calais, there are many for whom such a journey is at best a pipe dream. Refugees from all over (Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan to name a few countries) have traveled here and are staying in a camp called “the Jungle” outside the city, unsanctioned and even persecuted by the French government. They flee from unimaginable dangers and tragedies, looking for safety and just a bit of hope, but find only doors shut in their faces. Globally, over 20 million refugees face similar situations.

In June I began a research project to examine the role of the ecumenical Church in Europe in the global refugee crisis. I traveled in France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, visiting faith-based organizations and interviewing professional aid-workers, clergy, and volunteers to gather their perspectives on my topic. After a week I decided to shift the focus of my project to advocacy rather than analysis. I learned about the issues at stake in the crisis and the models for aid that organizations use most successfully, and I met several people whom I look up to as heroes in the crisis. I was also deeply discouraged at the apathy and hostility of many toward refugees, as well as the minuscule involvement of many churches in giving aid. My project continues, and today I am departing from another visit to Calais.

One of the most moving experiences of my project so far has been visiting the camp here. Thousands live in cheaply constructed tent structures, watching their savings gradually dwindle away as they hope to cross to the UK or be reunited with family members. They face police brutality and gangs of smugglers who profit off of the camp and take or strike wherever they like (since there is no rule of law). Meanwhile residents struggle through the cold and wet seasons with barely adequate shelter. Rival ethnic and cultural groups are forced to live in closely packed squalor and stand in lines waiting for the food and supplies that a few local aid organizations can provide. As a result, tensions are high and violence can break out at any moment.

An estimated 1,000 children live inside the Jungle, separated from their families. Women face great danger, since as much as 90% of the camp’s inhabitants are men. Rats are everywhere and personal hygiene is difficult to maintain. People may wait for hours to shower for just a few minutes once a week in the extremely limited facilities.

At the camp I met a man whom I will call Yusef. Yusef is a Sudanese refugee who has been living in the camp for over a year and hopes to claim asylum in the UK. Yusef was fasting when we met but he invited me to his home and insisted on kindling a fire and using his limited supplies to make a cup of coffee for me, although he would not partake. We spoke about our lives and he introduced me to the men he lived with, inviting me to come back at any time to visit or stay with him. I thanked him for his hospitality, feeling a little guilty to take a piece of the tiny ration of sugar and coffee that the men shared. He explained to me that there was no need for thanks–this was automatic, a piece of faith and culture that he lived by without a second thought. Before I left we embraced warmly and he repeated his invitation to return anytime. “We are brothers,” he said, and I walked away feeling warm and welcome and deeply disturbed.

Yusef showed me the kind of hospitality that he is denied from every direction in Europe. He must choose between countries who are racing to change their policies and become the least attractive options for asylum. Politicians profit daily from promising to turn him and others out of a small patch of land two miles outside of a vacation town in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. He would welcome me with open arms, but European and American governments will do whatever it takes to turn him away. It’s hopeless and it’s shameful and I feel helpless to do anything about it. Still I want to try.

Now my project is focused on spreading awareness and advocating for refugee aid. I am happy to speak to churches, Sunday school classes, small groups, and any other groups, faith-based or not. I believe Christians should know that love means hospitality and giving. I have seen personally that many non-Christians far excel me with their dedication to the cause of refugees. Whether we feel the call as Christians or simply as humans, we are in this together and we owe it to our brothers and sisters to lend a helping hand.

If you’d like to donate to help an organization in Calais serve the residents of the Jungle, L’Auberge des Migrants (the Refuge for Migrants) can put your money (or time) to good use. The organization began as a grassroots effort and now plays an essential role in supporting the camp. L’Auberge organizes and distributes goods within the camp and works with its residents to navigate the asylum process. If you’d like to buy much-needed supplies at a discount to ship directly to their warehouse for distribution, click here and choose from their pre-selected list. If you’d like to donate directly to the organization, click here. Your help is much-needed and much-appreciated.

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The church of the residents of the jungle

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One of the main roads through the camp

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Rats

 

Finisterre

After 19 days and about 300 miles on foot, I’ve finished my camino. I arrived in Santiago yesterday, and today I’m writing from Finisterre, “the end of the earth” (referred to in my last post). Pilgrims traditionally end the Camino at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, since the route began as a pilgrimage to visit the remains of St. James, interred there. There is a “pilgrim’s mass” held at the cathedral at noon each day for those who finish their journey that day or the day before. Many visit the tomb of St. James and embrace his statue in the cathedral, or visit the museum that is also located inside. To receive a “compostela”–the certificate that officially recognizes each pilgrimage–peregrinos wait in a long line, sometimes for hours, to submit their stamped credential for approval. (Pilgrims gather stamps along the way at albergues and other stops, such as restaurants or chapels.) The pilgrim’s mass is extremely crowded and feels like a production rather than a worship service, and for me it did not feel like a very holy end to my walk. Likewise, the hour long wait for my compostela felt a lot more like a trip to the DMV than the punctuation of a pilgrimage.

I’ve often felt frustrated at ostentation in churches and the way our culture’s consumerism pollutes places that should be sacred, or at least respected, and I felt the same way in Santiago. Of course, I didn’t fully realize my frustration until I was sitting on the cliffs of Finisterre journaling about my experience. This is the best way I could express my frustration in Santiago, followed by the wonder and closure that Finisterre brought me:

 

The road ends not at Santiago,
But at Finisterre.

It is not the shrill music of the Pilgrim’s Mass
In the great cathedral
That sounds the end of the Way,
But the quiet voice of waves and wind
That welcomes me here,
As no city ever could.

So I approach these cliffs,
Leaving the road for a ridge of rocks
Called End of Earth,
And I am struck silent,
Caught fast between sea and sky.

Quickly I discard my shoes and socks,
To stand with naked feet
On the holy cliffs.
I walk slowly
A few more steps
And sit,
A truer pilgrim
Alone before the God of the ocean
Than among the jostling crowds of the cathedral.

A jut of rock,
Stretched out like an offering
Over the foam
Beneath the clouds;

A seat of stone
For a weary wanderer
With road behind
And more ahead.

Swarms of floating bugs about
Clinging to clothes and skin,
Sunburn spreading on my nose and cheeks
Remind me that the world is not mine;
I am the world’s.
I am a creature,
And sometimes a humble creator.

There is no cathedral, no dome or buttress
To match the mountains to my left, or ocean on the right.
No proud basilica
Gold-gilded, strong-walled, high-ceilinged
Is like this temple of sea and sky.

This place is free
From the storms of flashing cameras
From the cacophony of clinking coins there,
In that place,
Where gold above,
If sold,
Could quench dry mouths,
Fill aching bellies below.

This little yellow flower
Sprouting at my feet
Between my toes
Is a truer altar
For the spirit of God
Than any table of gold.

Here,
Before the skyline,
Salt-wind on my face,
I receive my benediction.

Here,
With bare feet,
Bruised and battered,
Scarred and scored,
But stronger than before,
I will start walking.

The still, small voice:
“You’ve learned to walk,
But only a little way.”

There are miles and miles ahead, I know.
Even farther than that thin line I barely spy,
Pressed between sky and sea.

I watch for hours,
Unwilling to turn from the ocean.
For when I go from here,
Nothing so bright as a yellow arrow,
No golden seashell
Calls me forward.

From destination back to journey,
From rest again to road,
From simple walk to convoluted life,
I must go.

“Wander, wander far
But come back home.
Share what you see,
Find a companion,
Some humble seeker,
And wander again.”

Reluctantly, reluctantly
Socks slip back on,
And shoes are tied.
For the road is rough,
Not often so holy as here.

But my feet are stronger than before.

 

 

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something holy

Now there are only two days and thirty miles between me and Santiago. I’ve stretched my mileage so that I can arrive a day early and take a bus to Finisterre, a peninsula on the western coast of Spain that the ancients believed to be the end of the world. The name actually derives from the Latin finis terrae or “the end of earth.” Here it is customary to burn an article of clothing as a symbol of the end of one’s Camino (and possibly due to the smell that just doesn’t wash out). It will also be a welcome respite to relax on the beach and let my legs rest until I fly out of Santiago on the 23rd.

I’ve come to enjoy this rhythm of walking for hours each day and then taking time to read and write and rest. It’s a slow, steady rhythm and I think that I’ll miss it once life speeds back up after Santiago. I know I will adjust, but I hope I will remember how to settle back into my easy stride when time allows.

Today I walked 20 km (12 miles) from Ferreira to Melide and then I found myself swallowed up in a wave of pilgrims for the last 6 km to my destination. It seems like there will be many more on the trail, the closer I get to Santiago, and I have to say that I resent the change. The way is not so quiet and peaceful now, and there are so many shops and stalls along the way to cater to the heavy traffic. It feels much more like tourism than a pilgrimage at this point. I know that this is just my inner grumpy hermit coming out, after spending the last two and a half weeks without much social stimulation. I shouldn’t begrudge anyone their opportunity to walk the Camino, and I’ll try to look at the change more positively tomorrow. At the very least I’m sure to meet some interesting people.

Yesterday I was speaking with an Italian pilgrim named Rodrigo, and he told me about his reasons for walking the Camino. He told me that he carries the legacy of his ancestors, including his father and grandfather who have both passed away. He believes that through walking and prayer, his pilgrimage will help their souls find a better place in Purgatory. I thought this was an admirable reason to walk, even if I don’t hold the same beliefs, especially as I noted the way he persevered through significant leg pain.

Rodrigo asked my reasons for walking and I shared them, to which he replied, “So you’re a real pilgrim too!” He was referring to the fact that people increasingly walk for reasons that are not overtly religious, as opposed to pilgrims in the past who walked to visit what they believed was a holy site (the remains of St. James). While it is true in my experience that most people on the way don’t cite their faith as a reason for walking, I think that we are all still pilgrims. People walk to find peace or purpose; in response to a tragedy; to appreciate the beauty of nature; to slow down; to take care of their bodies; to spend time with a loved one. They walk for many reasons, and many of them are private. I think there is something spiritual in every walk and every reason is a good one. We all walk along a holy way, and it is impossible to walk without finding something holy in the journey.

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