Is This The Best Definition of Worship You’ve Ever Seen?
On Monday a group of us went up to the Jungle in Calais to meet refugees we have contact with there and to see how things lie. Badly is the simple answer. This is not a refugee camp in the normal sense. There are no neat lines of matching tents; no UNHCR teams holding it all together. Instead this is a thrown-up shanty of rutted muddy tracks and wind-blown tents, where a pallet and tarpaulin mash-up is the most permanent structure available.There is garbage everywhere, including tents flattened by wind and rain, abandoned where they fell.
In the midst of this transient chaos, the Ethiopean Orthodox Church of St Michael is an oasis of peace and beauty.Solomon Gatachow, its guardian, sleeps in a hut at its side to assure 24 hour security, and fights for the funds to run its generator and gas fire for daily morning and evening prayer and crowded Sunday services.
When Solomon and his friends built the church around a year ago, it was on a clearing away from the camp. Now the camp has grown around it, engulfing it in the very chaos it is desgined to overcome. Inside, though, nothing has changed. The floor is carpeted, the tarpulin walls fabric-lined. Brightly coloured icons of Jesus, Mary and the angels guide the prayers of the faithful. Michael, muscular and angelic in equal measure, battles Lucifer on their behalf. A cluster of hand-made walking sticks are available for the old and infirm and others who find it hard to stand for the 3 to 4 hour long services.
Part circus-tent, part art gallery, this holy space gives rich meaning to the term ‘sanctuary’. Its vistors are people in desperate need; people who’s lives are in freefall.Fleeing poverty and war, their way into the UK is blocked. Increasing violence mars the nights when hundreds will try to outrun a growing police presence to grab a life-threatening slot on the undercarriage of a train. Others have given up the fight, but where should they go? Home is not an option. France hardly more so.They stay, and try as best they can to build some kind of life in this wilderness.
Those who spend precious moments in this tabernacle are able, even briefly, to believe that they are part of a story bigger than themselves. Bigger even than war, than slavery, than violence.That this story is alive in this place, held together with cheap nails and plastic sheeting, is itself a miracle.
The late Robert Webber said in Ancient-Future Faith, “The very narrative of faith which we seek to know is symbolically expressed in our space. We take the ordinary aspects of life – stone, wood, windows, tables and chairs – and form them into voices of the Christian mystery. Space becomes the visual image of the connection between the known and the unknown.
He would have liked Solomon Gatachow. The label ‘Place of Worship’ is too often used for redundant buildings that are no such thing. Here, in the most unlikely of places, is a structure worthy of the name.