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WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?

At the June 2016, Annual Brothers Chapter at Hilfield, Hugh showed pictures of his visit to the Jungle in Calais, and Benedict read a letter from Brother Johannes Maertens asking for volunteers to come for several weeks, if possible. After quickly consulting my diary, I told Benedict I would be happy to go to Calais for the month of January. So it was arranged; in the interim the so-called Jungle was closed, but Johannes promised there would still be plenty to do, so I travelled to Calais on 5thJanuary, 2017.

Arriving in Calais, I was confronted by two powerful challenges. The first was a pair of armed gendarmes standing in the lobby of the train station. They were there, I later learned, to stop migrants from coming back to Calais. Over 400 migrants have been documented in Calais, with more arriving every day. The ones I encountered were mostly Eritreans, many of them minors fleeing forced conscription in their country. People who helped migrants were under surveillance. Johannes and Veronique, a supporter and volunteer who collected me at the train station, were nervously talking about the police vehicle parked at the corner near the house. ‘Don’t open the door unless I am there,’ Johannes told me. It was a daunting caution.

The other challenge as I shuffled into the Calais-Fréthun train station was the voice of Tina Turner singing her 1984 torch song ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ Just about everything, I decided. At that point I had no idea what I was facing, I felt intimidated by language barriers, the armed gendarmes, and wondering what in the world I could do to help in this situation. But I knew one thing I could offer was my love.

It was love that bade me welcome. The Maria Skobtsova Catholic Worker House was founded just over a year ago by Br. Johannes Maertens, a monk of the Servants of the Good Shepherd Benedictine Community of the Old Catholic Church; he is supported and helped by many, among them Baptist colleagues from England, the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis, other Anglican, Catholic and Protestant Churches, Roman Catholic Sisters of the Auxilaires and a host of wonderful, committed people in Calais, many of them also associated with Secours Catholique (Caritas France). The house hosts many young migrants—sixteen of us in a three-bedroom house. I was lucky having only two roommates. One extremely cold night we had 21 young people in the house. With one toilet and one shower it made for a highly-negotiated life. But it was luxury compared with the Jungle and the camps where many stay. Fortunately, food was brought in already cooked from L’Auberge, an establishment that not only prepared nearly 1000 meals a day for migrants at Dunkirk camp and individuals living under bridges and in dark corners, but shipped food, clothing and other essentials to migrants and refugees across Europe. We wedged around our dining table and after grace in English, Arabic or Tigrinya the food was served out. We ate voraciously—nothing ever tasted as good to me as those hot meals once a day: beans, rice, pasta or potatoes.

Within days it became clear to me what I could do among these young migrants: I listened to their stories of their families, their travels across the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea watching acquaintances die and be ejected from truck or boat like refuse. I supervised the use of the washing machine, chided them to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, a difficult task as any parent or guardian knows. We celebrated their favourite football teams’ victories and consoled each other at the losses. They never once had to be asked to wash the dishes or sweep the floor, muscling me and Johannes out of the way after dinner.

Every evening the household gathers for prayer. For a while we were blessed with the presence of two fifteen-year-old boys who were called, I think, ‘diakonos’ in the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Not what Anglicans think of as a deacon, but exceptionally gifted leaders of prayer and song. They sang, we said ‘Amen,’ and knelt and bowed our heads to the floor as incense swirled in the candlelight. Using Taizé chants, prayers from the SSF Office Book, and long passionate prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Amharic, we took stock of our days and offered them to God. We contemplated the enormity of what is happening to them: what’s happening in our world in an up-close and personal way.

Then, late at night many would don heavy clothing and go out into the night to try their luck at crossing over to England. They had to navigate dangerous trucks, snarling dogs, guards with cattle prods and hostile politics. These children wanted only to be with their families again and to have the hope of peaceable futures. f

 

Br Clark Berge SSF was Minister General of the First Order Brothers when he wrote this article.