We Are Trained to Ignore Our Compassionate Impulses
So much of Church life is sitting, listening, and not-responding. Listening and not acting. Listening, singing, and then going home. What does it do to a person to listen to words about doing good–welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, helping those in need—with few opportunities to act on those words? What happens to our capacity for compassion when we hear story after story about Jesus healing the sick, Jesus befriending the outcast, Jesus eating with sinners, while we ourselves are expected only to sit still and listen? My hunch is that all the sitting and listening without acting eventually conditions us to ignore our natural, God-given instincts to love. Over time many of us grow numb to the empathy we had as children–to feel sorrow for someone in need, to comfort and aid those who are hurting. Hours upon hours of sitting and listening, we can forget that the purpose of Christian stories and teachings are to get us moving, to get the heart pumping, to stir up our deepest and most sacred impulses to love, to care, to right the wrongs. This is how church sometimes becomes a place of “spiritual deformation”–by training people to do nothing.
Worse, when a person does stand up and asks, “What can I do?” often they are told, “How about give money? Maybe you could help mow the grass? Can you look over the finances? Are you available to read a passage at our next service about helping those in need?” It’s not that these ordinary church tasks aren’t necessary, but if we never exercise our ability to actually, concretely help someone, serve someone in need, our spiritual impulses atrophy and we become less alive, less awake, less ourselves. Over time, the heart recedes and shrinks. The compassionate imagination dims. Our receptors for love curl inward so that when someone suggests opening the church to the homeless or housing refugees we feel only fear and repulsion at an idea that appears so reckless and irresponsible.
An Invitation to Act
We were five men from North Wales: a welder, a carpenter, a government planner, a vicar, and me, the lone American. We had procured two vans and filled them with food, timber, plastic tarps, fire extinguishers, construction tape, and other supplies. We were taking time from work and home to help displaced people in Calais, France. And the feeling? The feeling was good. It felt good to try and do something right, something useful. It felt good to follow the most basic of human impulses—to share what you have with someone who has little. Spirits were high. We shared music we loved, remembered epic concerts we had attended. We smiled while describing our children, talked admiringly of our spouses. We told stories of adventures we’d had in other countries—a speeding ticket in Death Valley, a bar fight in Belfast, a dangerous sheep outside of Mold. We were on a mission. We were doing something that mattered. Hearts awake, spirits high, the mind clear with purpose.
“The Jungle,” the nickname given to the gathering of displaced people in Calais, is not a designated refugee camp. It began as a place where refugees and other homeless people gathered while awaiting entry into the United Kingdom. Most recent statistics (Refugee Rights Data Project) claim there are approximately 5,500 people in the camp: 4,640 men, 205 women, the rest children and minors. The average age in the camp is 25. Most have been at the camp for six months or more. When asked if they feel safe, the majority of respondents report experiencing or witnessing violence from French police and local vigilantes. It is no coincidence to me that the majority of people in the camp represent countries with recent U.S. military involvement: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Kuwait, Pakistan.
The night before we left a minister wrote me, “I’m not really supportive of these kinds of things. They feel like publicity stunts. Grand gestures. You take photos, everyone feels good, and then you leave. For me, the real work of serving others happens quietly, in simple acts.” Maybe he was right, but Jesus also did many grand gestures. Feeding the five thousand. Raising the dead. Walking on water. These were not simple, quiet acts. They were miraculous, memorable, ridiculously extraordinary acts that inspired, disoriented, and stimulated spiritual imagination. I wrote back, “Maybe there’ve been enough simple acts. Maybe it’s time for the absurd, the impractical in order to stir the heart, inspire the young, challenge the old to dream big.”
Maybe I was wrong, but what I felt as the five of us traveled south was that we had been released, given permission to do something concretely good—to follow the heart’s need to help someone else. We had been given a gift—an invitation to do something meaningful, which is a kind of rare soul-food in a culture that often feeds us empty distractions.
We Can’t Allow the Media to Define Our Relationship to One Another
The first night we stayed at the house of Azmat Nisa, one of the founders of Serving Humanity, a Muslim charity based in the United Kingdom. The trip to Calais would be a partnership between the Church in Wales and Serving Humanity in hopes of modeling a way in which Christians and Muslims could work together. We arrived at Azmat’s just after 8pm and were immediately led into the kitchen where she and three friends were preparing a feast of traditional Pakastani curries, samosas, rice, and naan bread. We ate eagerly at a big kitchen table amidst laughter and stories of growing up.
At one point Azmat addressed me, “You are an American, right? Make sure you take lots of pictures of all of us to show back home. We can’t allow the media to define our relationship to one another. We have to show Americans that Muslims are people. We have the same needs and desires as everyone else. People of different religions, different cultures, different economic backgrounds must be seen working together, eating together, being together. This is how we counter the media’s story of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
We drank tea and ate sweets, then someone asked Aidan Coleman, the vicar who had organized the North Wales delegation, what had inspired him to lead these trips to Calais. “I was on vacation with my wife in France. Each night on the news there were images of refugees from Calais. It was a clear injustice. Seeing it day after day stirred something up in me until finally I felt I had to do something. When we got home I started asking people at church if they wanted to go and help. I found a few people, we gathered supplies and we made a trip. It was that simple.” He paused, then said, “You know, that’s all it takes. Someone standing up and saying they’d like to do something. Many people are waiting to act, we simply need to give them the courage to stand up, then people will follow and good things will happen.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events and a Search for Meaning
The next morning we made the crossing and within thirty minutes met up with workers for Care4Calis who took us into the camp. We were immediately met by Charlie, a man in his early twenties who had been overseeing aid work for the past 6 months. Charlie was dressed in a torn jacket, knit hat, worn boots and jeans. In order to gain the trust of the refugees he had been living full-time in the camp. He looked tired, more than tired, “shattered” was the phrase one of team used to describe him. Charlie gave us a quick orientation to the people in the camp. Many were fleeing violence. Many seeking to avoid conscription in the army of corrupt governments. Some (just like my Italian, Scottish, and English ancestors who came to America) were seeking better economic opportunity. Charlie sighed and then said, “The real problem is no one seems to care. There has been a constant stream of journalists, activists, politicians…but nothing changes.”
We walked through the camp. The sky was gray. The cold wind off the sea filled with dust and sand. Chip bags, candy wrappers, soda bottles were baked into the dried earth. When the wind shifted you could smell the foulness from the open trenches behind the portable latrines. There were camping tents, some sturdy and blue donated by French aid agencies, others made of a patchwork of tarps and wooden pallets. The first person who greeted us was a handsome, large, curly haired young man with a generous smile. He stood on a wooden pallet outside his tent and when he spotted Charlie he broke into a grin and waved. Charlie smiled back and walked over to where they greeted each other with a bear hug. Charlie asked a few questions, mouthing his words carefully while making gestures. The man smiled, looked over at us and grinned with arms wide in welcome. Charlie hugged the man a second time and then off we went. “Who was that?” I asked. “He’s Iraqi. He’s deaf and mute. His town was destroyed in a U.S. bombing. He lost everything including his family. He has relatives in the U.K. that he’s trying to reach.” We walked in silence then Charlie said off-handedly. “He’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.”
Charlie walked us around, talked with people, and pointed out the various sections of the camp. The setting wasn’t unfamiliar. Extreme poverty looks the same wherever you go—makeshift shelters, dirt roads, roaming dogs, chicken-wired storefronts selling soda and bagged chips. I had been in similar environments in Guatemala, Zimbabwe, and along the Mexican-U.S. border. The difference was the despair. The despair was palpable. Young men standing around with little to do. Young men staring into cheap phones, looking for some kind of friendship or warmth. Young men wandering through the camp without any particular destination. Young men sitting and staring. Everyone waiting…waiting…waiting…for someone, something, that wasn’t coming.
Charlie was most happy when greeted by one of the residents of the camp. He would light up, talk animatedly, exchange handshakes and back slaps, then he would return to us and his demeanor would shift–he’d look uncertain, troubled, exhausted. “Why are you here, Charlie?” I asked him privately. He smiled and said, “Well, I ended up here through a series of unfortunate events…”
He laughed, then almost as an afterthought, “and a search for meaning.”
The Desire for Home
Within thirty minutes of arriving at the refugee camp, I wanted to leave. This was my strongest feeling in The Jungle: the desire to be somewhere else. The lack of women, the lack of elders, the lack of community. The food and supplies we had brought felt pitiful, so small, so little in contrast to the great need, the great indifference that people faced. I didn’t want to be among these young men who felt lost, ghostlike, aimless, stuck. These were stranded people, their potential wasting away, desperately in need of friendship and guidance. And the truth was, I had nothing of real value to offer them. These were people whose surroundings sent a constant, persistent, and clear message: You are not wanted. No one cares for you. Go away.
Most of the residents were the same age as my two sons and like my own sons they have dreams and hopes. The occupants of The Jungle want work and meaning. They want love and romance and a safe place to raise a family. Like any human being they want friendship and a home. Their desires are simple and yet those of us who are comfortable feel such great fear at the thought of welcoming people who look different from us, such apprehension at people who want the same things we want.
It wasn’t until that evening, in a heated van, listening to the radio, headed home to my family in Wales, that I realized that this extreme desire to be somewhere else was the same feeling present in the people of the camp. I had caught their despair. The difference being I could act on it, I could leave, whereas the displaced people of Calais were forced to stay, to live with the ache for a home.
Let Them All In
Before departing, Azmat suggested we eat a meal in the camp. We went to one of the tents where three Pakistanis ran a makeshift restaurant called, “Three Idiots.” We sat on raised platforms and were served ginger tea and a feast of curries and rice. While we ate I asked Aidan what he thought should happen to the refugees. “They should all be let in. All of them. I’m from Northern Ireland. When the potato famine hit, Liverpool welcomed half a million Irish. One town. Half a million. There’s room in the U.K. We should let them in. The reason we don’t is tribalism. They look different. They speak different. They worship different. But this was the very thing Jesus was trying to counteract. That’s why he says, ‘Welcome the stranger.’ ‘Love your enemy.’ All of us are immigrants. All of us are refugees. We all have the same needs and desires. All of us deserve to be welcomed. Let them all in.”
We walked back to our vans and I was glad to be leaving. But then, just as we buckled our seatbelts, two young men, no more than twenty years old, tapped on Peter’s window. They both looked defeated, desperate. In broken English one of them said, “Can we go? Go with you?” Peter smiled sorrowfully, explained we didn’t have any seats, told them we were headed back to the U.K.
The men stood. There was a pause, then wanting to help, Peter asked, “Where are you headed?” They shrugged their shoulders, they searched for words, then one of them said, “Anywhere.” All four of us went silent. And in that silence the chasm was felt. Peter looked over at me, his face pained. He turned back to the two young men and spoke the hard truth, “I’m sorry lads. I’m sorry. We’re headed back. I can’t take you.” The two young men, unsurprised by this response, nodded their heads. They then stepped back from the van, raised their hands and gave a small wave. The van was backing away and the men waived like friends do when someone departs.
Instinctively, I raised my hand. I held my hand up and waved at these two hopeless young men. I waved and they waved back, and then I remembered a line from a Stevie Smith poem,
Responding to God’s Pain
After returning to Wales I spent an evening listening to refugees who had successfully entered the United Kingdom. When you take the time to listen to the stories of people the humanity comes through. Your heart breaks open to those who have left everything they know (their language, culture, family, careers) at great personal risk, in order to find a safe place to live. When you stop and listen to people labeled “refugee” or “immigrant” you discover that the woman trying to protect herself and her daughter from an abusive husband (in a country with few rights for women) could be your sister. When you listen to the situation of the young student seeking life-saving medical assistance, you notice she smiles like your daughter. When you listen openly to the young man who hasn’t seen his wife nor daughter in over a year, the man who is fleeing a twenty year jail sentence for critiquing his country’s political policy, when you listen to this young man it isn’t long before your own heart breaks and you feel God’s pain, you want to respond.