On witnessing another world just round the corner
A few weeks ago I went to Calais for a few days to volunteer in the Auberge de Migrants, as a kind of ‘recce’ for the QVA working retreat taking place there in July. It was my first time there, so there was a great deal I was ignorant about (and still am).
As Quakers know all too well, it can be hard to put experiences of the Light into words. So in this piece I’ll just do the best I can.
Arriving in safety
Calais is just a short nap away from English shores. I feel asleep just as we were leaving Dover and woke up what seemed like moments later, approaching France. Making this journey so easily in either direction is a marker of my privilege. People die – regularly – for want of this ease of movement, because their lives, their journeys, have not given them the right to go this way. I have such freedom. My lovely parents are going to Calais next month, too. They’re collecting the wine for my wedding. And suddenly I’m put in mind of one whose first miracle changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and whose life was spent eating and hanging out with those his society thought were unclean. Who are unclean by our society’s standards? I wanna be eating with them.
Looking for food on our arrival, we were hard pressed to notice any sign, any evidence of the hundreds of people we knew were destitute in this city. They are on the outskirts: the industrial edges, the forests and the nature reserves. Literally at the margins. (Or are they the thin places?) But maybe it’s naive to think we’d see those who have fled from Syria, or Eritrea, or Iraq, Afghanistan or Sudan walking the streets with the restaurants and casinos and supermarkets. Maybe their invisibility is not at all surprising, when their presence is so heavily controlled by the police, who regularly evict, confiscate and harass. Many do not want to see. Standing in the centre of Sheffield, where I live, or any other British city for that matter, is that the place you’d really see the injustice? Some people sleeping rough – yes. Some people asking for money – for sure. But the poor housing, the food banks, the rape crisis centres closed or the structural racism? For some of these inequalities you need to look a little harder, if indeed you are not one of those that these issues affects. Continue reading
Poem: This Earth is a Garden, inspired by a QVA working retreat in Swarthmoor Hall
Quaker Voluntary Action Gardening Retreat , October 2018, Swarthmoor Hall
About 10 people, not all of whom liked gardening, came together – why had they come?
The Cool of the Day
Do you like my garden so free?
Through the gate we worked, in the cool of the day, weeding, composting
Finished the task in one day
We walk in the labyrinth,
in the orchard,
in the quiet garden. Continue reading
High Wycombe working retreat, December 2018
Preparing for the retreat
On a crisp December weekend, QVA volunteers redecorated Mellor House, which has just been purchased by Chilterns Area Quaker Meeting for use by Wycombe Refugee Partnership as a halfway house for refugee families.
Thank you so much to all the volunteers who joined our working retreat. Some came for a morning, others for a couple of days, and others stayed over for the whole thing – you all made a great project possible!
Our hosts at Wycombe Refugee Partnership said ‘Not only has the living space for our refugees been painted – which was a big job – but the house feels as though it has been hallowed by the retreat.’ Continue reading
Picking olives at Ein Ya Broud
Raking and picking olives from the trees
It was a steep and rocky haul up to the family’s olive tree terraces on the hillside opposite their home village of Ein Ya Broud. I had been relieved to accept a lift in a 4 wheel drive up the final steepest section, though less sure that I had made the right decision as the pick-up proceeded sharply up the stony, rutted track and round theoretically impossible bends. To the evident enjoyment of the experienced driver, who knew these terraces well, and the gasps and arm-clutching of my fellow passengers! So I was already a bit adrift when we finally arrived and were met by a small, strong-looking woman wearing a full black head-scarf and ankle-length tan coverall over her black trousers and trainers. Somewhat incongruously topped off by a royal blue baseball cap. Though, as a veteran (second day) olive picker, I knew how necessary that would be for a day spent gazing upwards through the olive trees. She was dressed for work. Continue reading
Swarthmoor Hall working retreat, September 2018
A morning warm up at Swarthmoor
Wherever you stand the space around you tells many stories. The loudest is written in the here and now, the buildings, people and nature forming the space. Others are quieter but more insistent, revealing themselves only if you look under the veil of the present and listen to the ancient voices echoing in the stones beneath.
Swarthmoor is a place that richly rewards investigation with open eyes and a listening ear, particularly for anyone remotely interested in Quaker history. That history had not formed a significant part of my journey into Quakerism, even after becoming the Friend in Residence at the ancient Meeting House in Airton; but I knew it held depths of meaning waiting to be discovered and the time would come when I would be drawn into its study. So it was with my first visit to the place where the fateful meeting of George Fox with the Fells in 1652: a grand pile seemingly on the edge of civilisation, in a country already resonating with dissenting voices, seeking new ways of constructing faith and society. Continue reading