Church Matters

So far this summer the travels of my wife, Pam, and I have taken us to the cities of Glasgow, London and Barcelona. That perhaps all sounds a little extravagant and exotic, but Glasgow and London were mostly family visiting, with Barcelona being our real (4 day) break.

Barcelona is quite an extraordinary city it’s fairly extensive redevelopment and improvement for the 1992 Olympics having been carried on down to the present day. This doesn’t mean that it’s all modern buildings – far from it. New developments have been sympathetically blended with the buildings of the past, with both styles offering an architectural feast for the eyes. Put this against a backdrop of beautiful blue skies and surrounding hills and you realise it’s quite a special place.

As we walked around Barcelona it became apparent that we were not the only tourists in the city. All around us were the voices from France, Germany, Japan, China, America, Australia and many more countries. It was a real, buzzing hive of humanity that was simply enjoying the sights and soaking up the sunshine. The plethora of sidewalk cafes and restaurants all offered a laid-back feel to resting points, with locals often engaged in animated conversation at tables while tourists sat and drank coffee or beer in the shade of the brightly coloured parasols.

It really was an idyllic setting for a short city-break. But there was also an undercurrent of something else going on – something that wasn’t immediately apparent but the more you walked around the more you saw and felt it. Nearly every street had someone begging on it. Certain areas had their gatherings of the homeless around park benches. Large wheelie bins that populated the streets were regularly visited by those who would open them and scavenge for anything edible or useful they could find. It somehow felt disturbing that amongst all the splendour of the city, all the bliss of barcholidaymakers, all the leisurely reclining at table, there was this distinct subculture of poverty and need that was openly operating on the streets in broad daylight, and patently being ignored by the vast majority. On reflection, Glasgow and London had similar things happening, but perhaps not as pronounced as it was in Barcelona.

On return to the UK we found ourselves attracted to a BBC 2 programme entitled “Exodus – Our Journey to Europe”. It had a series of three, one-hour programmes that aired over consecutive nights. It followed the journeys of migrants from their homelands in their quest to find a better life in Europe. There were whole families and individuals trying to escape the war-torn areas of the world – Afghanistan and Syria in particular. None made the decision to travel lightly, but when you’re faced with daily violent threats to life and have seen your home and surroundings bombed out, you instinctively know you have to move, with the movement itself largely facilitated by people-smugglers for extortionate amounts.

One of the individuals whose journey was tracked was an articulate guy, an English teacher, who had fled from Syria after having been arrested on a protest march against the authorities. His “arrest” featured a twenty minute, on the ground beating with iron poles which broke his wrists, two ribs and damaged a leg. Even though he cried for mercy there was no relenting from his persecutors – they just carried on beating him, and others. After the beating he was taken to a police station, where the treatment was similarly, as he put it, inhuman. He knew he had to get out of Syria.

He has thankfully arrived in the UK and been granted asylum, but only after many months of travelling that has featured people-smugglers. His journey included two sea crossings in hugely overcrowded and sinking rubber dinghies. It included sixty days in the “Jungle” at Calais – a place that he called the death of dreams and hope – where he continually tried to get across the channel on board a lorry or train. It included him buying a forged passport and attempting to fly into the UK, only to be found out while queuing to board a plane in Paris. He finally managed to arrive in the UK on the same passport via a flight from Brussels. Once in the UK he gave himself up to police. His journey had been desperate in all senses of the word, and he was not alone.

The refugee situation is extremely complex and not easy to solve, but does it really take so much tortuous effort simply to find a place of safety and hope? The cost on thousands of lives right across Europe is horrendous. At the end of the third programme the BBC advert for the next series of The Dragon’s Den sat quite incongruously against what we had just seen. It was Barcelona in our sitting room.

Jesus highlighted the two most important things in this life: to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Christians who take these things seriously cannot sit comfortably when poverty, inequality and suffering is so apparent on a worldwide, national and even local scale. I think the Church is beginning to stir…

 Tony Stephens