It was a privilege to be invited to the recent Faith and Frontiers conference organised by Project Bonhoeffer, where I spoke about Seeking Sanctuary, the small organisation that provides support to refugees. For some time I have been involved in raising awareness of the plight of migrants who have been stranded in Northern France. As a local politician of my home town of Deal in Kent, there are times when this has been a very unpopular cause.
For me, Bonhoeffer’s life and vision has been a source of strength and has enabled me in keep going when the whole process of support and solidarity seems overwhelming and too challenging. He experienced and faced up to the turbulent times in Germany at a time when the binary narrative of ‘them and us’ was becoming all too apparent. Preaching in Berlin on Psalm 63, one month before he was ordained, he wrote:
‘Only the one who knows the love of God, who has been deep in the darkness of faithlessness and enmity to God, feels the disturbing power of love which never ceases, which forgives all, and who from all distress comes into God’s world … there is no relief from this assault on our life. We cannot escape responsibility and ever anew God asks ‘What is my life worth?’
Later, at a conference in Fano in Denmark, Bonhoffer made his position clear, asking the participants to humble themselves, listen to God’s commands and adhere to them. He was equally clear about how peace could be brought about. He said
‘Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hands of Almighty God…’
It was a few years later that Bonhoeffer would describe this process of listening to God’s command as discipleship, but his message was clear from the start.
The challenge of discipleship in our times
And so I come to my own journey in meeting the challenges posed by Bonhoeffer. It started twenty years ago when in East Kent we experienced a wave of migration from Eastern Europe, with people, mainly Roma from the Czech and Slovak Republics, arriving in the UK because they felt persecuted in their own country. It was not a popular cause – the local media whipped up a frenzy of anger which still troubles me today. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, which stimulated my interest in their cause.
My work with migrants carried on through from 2000 onwards, until the plight of migrants in Calais triggered the popular imagination – hence our small organisation Seeking Sanctuary was formed in early 2015 to coordinate the assistance of the numerous individuals and organisations that has asked how they could be of help, as well as to provide advocacy for refugees.
Seeking Sanctuary has managed to raise awareness of the desperate and squalid conditions in the Jungle in Calais, as well as highlighting the issue of the number of unaccompanied minors, many of whom have rights to settle in the UK. While the Jungle camp is now closed, around 1500 people remain in Dunkirk with more in the small scattered communities of migrants in centres deep in the French countryside, often distant from sources of support and advice as well as from the nearest town. And this is just a small part of a Europe wide issue – for example around 55,000 people may have to face winter on the island of Rhodes alone.
Many thousands, including young people and students, have answered the call to discipleship and action in a completely self-giving way, spending weeks and months of their time in entirely voluntary service in the Jungle. When I was at the L’Auberge des Migrants centre in Calais recently, I saw hundreds of people sorting out goods arriving from all over Europe. The Refugee Community Kitchen there was serving 2500 meals each day. Many of these people would not describe themselves as religious, and this fact helped me to realise that discipleship transcends all boundaries. Even though Bonhoeffer was writing in a Christian context, the message of discipleship is universal.
I have also come to learn that discipleship is a mutual process of giving oneself to the other. This theme is implicit in much of what Bonhoeffer spoke about, for example he was always eager to learn from his students. His insights on the mutuality of discipleship deepened as he found himself confined in prison with like-minded individuals. And so discipleship is also two way process – we are all disciples to each other.
There have been many times when a migrant has become a disciple to me. Maurice is from Mauritania. His little plot of ground has been an inspiration for so many both inside and outside the Jungle camp. He created a space for creativity and art, where chickens ran around and posters are displayed saying ‘This house is an antidote to racism’. Another source of inspiration has been Henock, who painted the beautiful murals for the Eritrean Church which was destroyed alongside the rest of the Jungle in early November.
Similarly, I have been inspired by those at the Children’s Legal Centre, and the people who have created and run the ‘Jungle Books’ library. Thousands have spent weeks and months in the Jungle, and are seeking new ways of helping the migrants who are now dispersed all over France as well as the 1500 plus people who are still stranded near Dunkirk. And many people have lived alongside the hundreds of unaccompanied children, supporting them while the painfully slow process of processing their claims takes place.
For me this has been a challenging journey. The times when I have been warned, covertly or otherwise, not to speak out for fear of losing votes. The times when I have mocked on social media for being soft on immigrants and asylum seekers. But this is little compared to the challenges for Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries faced when they had to make difficult choices almost every day of their lives in the midst of the evils of National Socialism. His example and witness continues to urge us, and a new generation of young people, to ensure that evil and intolerance must be fought so that it must not prevail in years to come.
The work of Seeking Sanctuary is never straightforward, and there have been times when I have wondered if it is all worth it, given the obstacles that we face. And yet I feel Bonhoeffer giving myself and others an uncompromising message – that discipleship demands a total rather than a watered down commitment.
For more information on the situation of migrants in Northern France and how you can get involved, visit www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com
This article first appeared in Issue 155 of SCM’s Movement magazine. You can read the full issue at www.movement.org.uk/movement.