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Issue No.116
23 June 2018

Talking Justice: Seeking sanctuary

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Ben Bano describes how a church became a haven within the Calais jungle


SOME MONTHS AGO, I WAS APPROACHED BY OUR LOCAL DIOCESAN MAGAZINE to write a reflection on the life and activity of our local church. The aim was to show how our places of worship could and should be vibrant community hubs where people of all faiths and sometimes none could meet and draw sustenance.

But the church I wanted to describe was different - as it had been destroyed only a few weeks earlier. I am one of the organisers of Seeking Sanctuary, a small organisation set up to support migrants in Northern France and, in particular, in the Jungle Camp. For over a year a group of Eritrean migrants, on arriving at the Jungle, had decided that their first act would be to erect a church where they could give praise to the Lord in the midst of the squalor of their surroundings. The church became a haven for those in the jungle, particularly women and children, who wanted to find peace and tranquility in what was often a tense atmosphere.

Over the months some beautiful icons were painted by a young artist in primitive conditions, with art materials supplied by a school in Canterbury. We marveled at these works of art as they took shape - the depiction of the Last Supper was particularly moving. I was privileged to be able to take the Archbishop of Southwark to the church where he conversed with the church elders and witnessed a group of mothers and children at prayer.

But last October it was all over. As the Jungle was systematically destroyed, we had hoped that the church at least would be spared. For two weeks we held our breath as shacks around the church were destroyed, often with a single sweep of a bulldozer. Prayer vigils were held every day while the standoff took place - then one morning the bulldozers moved in and destroyed the flimsy structureof the church in just a few minutes. The community which had sustained the church was left scattered across France - indeed, the artist found himself homeless on the streets of Paris. But the icons were rescued and are due to be sent to the appropriate Orthodox Churches in both London and Paris.

And so I wrote the following prayer as a tribute to the worshipping community of Eritreans. I should not have been the one writing this prayer - that task should have belonged to the Community of Eritreans, now scattered elsewhere, who are hoping and praying that their plight and quest for sanctuary will be heard by the authorities in the UK and France - but so often to no avail. So the prayer is dedicated to those voiceless people who, in the midst of persecution and violence, decided on the ultimate adventure - that of finding safety and sanctuary for themselves and their loved ones. This is an adventure with few or no tangible rewards - but with just a hope that their dignity and worth as human beings will be remembered in a world that has grown cynical and intolerant of the fate of our brothers and sisters in humanity.


This WAS our Church (to the Church of St Michael in the Jungle, Calais)

Our prayers have risen to the Lord
not in a glorious building
but in a tent which has been a symbol of hope
to so many trapped in the jungle around us.

We have been a haven of solace and peace
giving praise to the Lord in the squalor and our mud-filled surroundings.

We have remained faithful to the Lord's word,
ensuring that the teachings of holy scripture are studied and understood.

We have kept and marked the Holy Days
which are so special to our faith.
In your name we have adorned our Church with sacred images
to glorify you and give you praise.

And now our Church is no more
but we, its people are still there.

Wherever we will be in an uncertain future,
our Church lives on in our hearts and our souls.
May it be an inspiration for all those who strive to put into action
the message of Jesus, of justice and peace.

God of the downtrodden and the voiceless,
give us confidence that we can see the way ahead
and not lose the hope of a decent and peaceful life
which is common to all those made in your image.

Give us strength to go forward, always trusting in you
that someday our hopes and dreams will be fulfilled. Amen


You can find out more about the work of Seeking Sanctuary by visiting: w: