Privileged presence - a blog from Calais
Jesuit Scholastic Chris Brolly has spent six weeks in Calais working alongside migrants and refugees. He reflects on how entering deeply into another’s lived experience has energised his faith journey.
While my first five weeks in Calais were full of rewarding experiences, towards the end of my stay I became frustrated at my inability to make deeper connections with the people of the migrant communities I was serving when on distributions or hospital runs.
This was partly due to how I had I entered into relationships based on offering a service, rather than relationships founded on the equality of mutual support. And there were often language barriers. Most of all, I think this lack of connection stemmed from my inability to really ‘fall in love’ with the people in need around me, to take the stories of their plight to my heart. While I gave myself generously to provide refugees with the food, drink and other necessities out of basic human decency, I think I remained quite sceptical about their plans to attempt to enter the UK, doubting whether they would find the desired stability and security while awaiting asylum claims or attempting to avoid deportation.
In recognising this lack of connection and shortcoming of love on my part, during my final weeks I prayed for the grace to deepen in my rapport with and understanding of the migrant peoples who I was serving. I also acted on this by undertaking a different experience: moving into Maria Skobstova House, a Catholic Worker community run by Brother Johannes, a Benedictine monk.
At Maria Skobstova House Christian volunteers live alongside migrants of all backgrounds, but in particular those who are in real need of accommodation for whatever reason. Each day volunteers, alongside Brother Johannes and the migrant members of the community, pray, eat meals, and maintain the community by doing the laundry, cleaning the house and preparing the food. It is a way of offering religious life as a haven amidst the difficult social realities that face migrants in Calais. But my experience would show me that volunteers also have much to gain.
I found that sitting around a table and sharing meals deepened my understanding of the young guys around me, allowing me to learn about their interests and share their culture. Since the majority of the community at the time happened to be Eritrean Orthodox Christians, we were also able to share prayer times. I found it very moving to share intimate moments with others who, weeks before, had merely been ‘service users’. Discovering the layers of their characters allowed me to deepen my appreciation of them as people.
We also had opportunities to spend quality time away from Calais. One day I went with some of the Eritrean guys to nearby Arras to take part in an Orthodox Mass, followed by a traditional meal courtesy of a small community of Ethiopians settled in Arras. We shared stories over njera bread and lentils and I began to learn more about their traumatic journeys, including religious persecution and fatal sea crossings. These conversations were calls to open my ears, as well as my heart, to those who have lived such a different life to my own and to respond to their stories with concrete actions of generosity, rather than an inactive sympathy.
Another touching experience was accompanying Br Johannes and a group of Eritrean refugees to visit Michael (not his real name), one of their compatriots in a residential hospital who had been left paralysed after being shot through the neck by a people-smuggler. It could have been an awkward situation, spending a couple of hours with a stranger. Yet in fact it was very moving to watch the Eritrean guys overcome the adversity of the situation and look after their friend, taking turns to feed him, comb his hair and joke with him. Unable to join the conversation, all I could contribute was prayer and so, in focussing on the people present, their faces and loving actions, and Michael’s wounds, I prayed the rosary. I prayed for everyone connected to Michael’s life and, of course, for his recovery and good health. This brought me closer to the reality of the situation and, again, left my heart feeling soft and moved. It was another step on this journey of deepening love and affection towards the migrant community, this journey of my own personal ‘softening’ and conversion of heart towards those in great need, whose plight and difficulties I have previously not allowed to affect me.
By the end of my stay in Calais and at Maria Skobstova House, I found that I had entered into true friendship with those I was living alongside. I felt this most intensely on my final night in the community during our evening prayer together. As we prayed, I looked around the room with love at the kind, warm guys I had spent the last seven days with, and I felt an intense sadness in the pain they are carrying and the further difficulties that could await them. I prayed intensely to Jesus, asking Him to keep them safe, lead them to peace and happiness. This was a complete change to the lukewarm regard in which I held migrants on my arrival. The same evening I also felt heavy-hearted to be leaving, as if I was deserting my friends, especially knowing that I would be going to a comfortable home in the country they so dearly wish to enter. Where the bad spirit was trying to place guilt in me, the good turned it to consolation by reminding me that my feelings were a good sign of the time, love and generosity I had given to others, the fact that I had entered their reality enough to feel myself hurt by their own pains.
Overall, the experience of sharing life, meals and prayer with the Eritrean migrant community, in the Maria Skobstova community, has been a process of conversion for myself, a softening of my heart and a deepening of my regard for all others as my brothers and sisters in Christ and the immense dignity and importance of human life, no matter where someone is from or the differences that could keep us apart.
The ‘entry into the reality of others’ has left me enthused to return to my philosophy studies and really consider the concept of ‘reality’. Throughout my encounters with migrants I was struck by the wisdom shared by the guys I met which had clearly come from the richness of their own experiences. Once more I learnt the benefit of listening closely to others and learning from them, rather than projecting my own pre-conceptions onto their situations or their ideas.
I also learnt that it was only by immersing myself in their lives, their culture and their experiences that I could begin to grasp their reality. Only in having seized their reality could I then locate their needs and attempt to put myself to their service in responding to their needs. These reflections leave me in a good place to now enter my second year of studies, seeking parallels between this transformative pastoral experience close to migrant communities in Calais and my reading into a wide range of philosophical topics: from metaphysics and the attempt to capture reality, to political philosophy and how we, as humans, can attempt to live together in peace.