Perhaps I jumped on a bandwagon, perhaps I followed my heart, perhaps I responded to a call of God. Either way, one weekend in early November I found myself meeting extraordinary people as I travelled through Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, Syria - or so it seemed. And all by crossing the channel with a small team of Jesus smitten gospel loving hope bringing worshippers.
The ease of the trip to The Jungle in Calais - the name used by the refugees to describe their place of sojourn - was no doubt highlighted by my previous trips to some of these actual nations. This time, no airport visas, layovers or immunisations required. Just over an hour from my land, this muddy heartbreaking yet innovative camp houses many who have been forced to leave theirs. What a contrast was my journey to the perilous long journeys the refugees themselves had made to arrive there. Yet my destination was at best to them a place of waiting.
Loving a God who makes my relationship with him possible precisely because he left his home in glory to 'move into the neighbourhood' made it impossible for me to stay away from these precious displaced ones, so close to my home. This paired with a militant belief that worship is both adoration and action. In the words of Paul, 'Christ's love compels us,' and in Heidi Baker's words, 'love looks like something.'
My 'something' was the trip's dual focus of worshipping, and sharing Jesus' love. Some of this worship was with fellow believers; the privilege of worshipping with these brave, beautiful believers cannot be easily described. Jesus surely dwells in Calais. Time was also spent blowing bubbles, restringing guitars, singing and laughing with children. They are as much God's priority, and their strength in vulnerability is heartbreakingly inspiring.
One of my many highlights was spending time with two women. Their home country, Eritrea, is one where to be a Christian is to face danger and persecution. To sing, laugh and share Bible verses with these sisters in Christ was very precious. We talked about the goodness of God even in hard times, of his faithfulness, and of the power of worship. We attempted to learn one of their worship songs, at the same time a cause of much hilarity and an expression of beautiful solidarity. We chatted about our identity as royalty in the kingdom, and anointed them with Queen Esther oil, although these women already carried the fragrance of Jesus.
Perhaps it was not surprising to learn of the openness to the gospel message, but I was surprised. There is a ready harvest just over our shores. Many of the refugees are Muslims, and many are disillusioned with recent atrocities that have been done in the name of Islam, however inaccurately those acts may represent their religion. Their consequent openness to the love of God as Father, to the sacrifice of Jesus, and to the life giving Holy Spirit is mind blowing. We shared Jesus, and Jesus was welcomed in. Time and again. Some had questions, arguments, challenges, and were unswayable. But many others were hungry to learn of a God of love whose grace is enough, who is at once Father, Saviour, friend, healer, life bringer. The discovery of such a God was embraced, and Bibles were left in grateful hands as new birth transpired.
Within the dirt, mud, ramshackle piecemeal housing and desperation of the jungle, there is a very definite reflection of heaven. Different nations are co existing. Lives are crossing. The gospel is spreading. Whilst many are taking valuable physical aid to the refugees, it was an absolute privilege to take the love of Jesus and to worship in a place where there is, amidst the dirt, an abundance of diamonds.
I left with the question - so many are taking aid, but how many are taking Jesus? So many are practically loving and caring, ministering to the body, but how many are ministering to the spirit? I am sure there must be some, but how many, and could there be more? Most of the refugees were clothed with new outer garments - the aid is flowing, there are warm clothes for what will no doubt be felt as an incredibly harsh winter to those used to burning sun. And this is good, we absolutely must clothe the naked. But what of the garments of salvation? Who are the ones taking robes of new identity, hope and new life to those in need? There will be some reading who are well equipped within organisations to meet the vast spiritual hunger that the camp reveals. Those who are trained to, and who train others to speak and share Jesus in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Tigrinya ... Here is an opportunity, a ripe harvest just an hour from these shores. Perhaps you have a role to play in helping bring it in. This could be the biggest thrill of your life, and an incredible legacy, as well as an amazing blessing to the church in Europe and to this nation should these newly Jesus loving spirit filled refugees eventually find a home here. Let's see heaven expand as God turns a humanitarian tragedy into an outrageous opportunity. The time is now.
After 3 trips to the Jungle in Calais since mid November, I'm poised for my fourth, with more anticipation than ever. Why does this place have such a pull on me? Why the urgency to return? And what might this mean for you, the reader?
My first trip in November was spent sharing the love and life of Jesus in conversation, friendship, and through music. Wonderfully, a number of Iranians responded to the call of Jesus. My past 2 trips were spent doing the same, but based in a specific location, serving tea, soup and food to mainly Afghan refugees. The small Chai Hut ministry set up with gargantuan effort and love by 2 retired heroes from Exmouth was intended to cover 40 days over Christmas. However the value of this bright light in such a dark and of late literally freezing place has touched the hearts of all who have served there. And so it continues. As fellow believers have come out to serve and love those who queue up - unsurprisingly in a frustratingly un British manner! - for warm food and drinks, the value of the ministry has become clear. From the friend who refers to the hut as 'my hotel', to another who has twice received prayer for his broken jaw - the result of a clash with police after trying to climb a fence; to the 12 year old whose smile lights up any dull moment, or to the cheeky youth who misheard my name and now knows me as Piano, the hut is a place of kindness and familiarity, within an uncertain and harsh environment. On one occasion, a volunteer was hugged by a tearful teenage lad who explained, 'You remind me of my mum.' There are a number of places of kindness on the site - the fantastic theatre tent, the women's centre, the Jungle Books library and school... Yet, what the Chai Hut offers is a motley bunch of largely English Christians who also look to share Jesus with those who were much less likely to hear the gospel back home in their war torn countries.
It struck me recently that, were this an official UN sponsored refugee camp, the opportunity to do this would be near impossible. My prayers are torn at present - it will be glorious to see a reception centre in Calais which is safe, warm, dry - and also in Dunkirk where conditions are far worse, if this is possible. And yet if governments find the compassion to build them, the door to Light Shining believers with a heart to feed the spirit as well as the body and soul of these presently landless ones, may close.
My last article was entitled Window of Opportunity. Things change extremely quickly in the Jungle; the November landscape of sagging tents was replaced by mid January with a sea of wooden shelters, thanks to incredible energy displayed by volunteers. When I return, the area where I spent all my time in November will have been razed to the ground, after a government enforced 'safe' refugee-free zone meant 1500 people have had to relocate within the Jungle. Some have moved into converted shipping containers with warmth and light (but no running water or toilets inside ...) and entry to these is controlled. Already this window is a little less open, and time may be short.
The God who walks through walls, approves of holes in roofs and who cannot be contained inside boxes - and all for the sake of the kingdom - may just be inviting you or your organisation to step through this particular window at this time. Getting to Calais is so very simple for us in the UK. Costs and time taken are a fraction of those needed to journey to Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Iran. It has almost never been easier to share the love of a Father and a Son who is Saviour, empowered by his Spirit, to a broken and love-hungry gathering of souls. Whether as part of the Chai Hut ministry, which is drawing volunteers from a number of churches and mission organisations, or in another capacity, please, for the sake of the lost, let's not look back on a closed window just a few months or years from now with regret. The time is now and Christ the refugee's love compels us.
So much has happened since my last article in February 2016, which preceded my 4th trip to the Jungle. Following a second demolition in March, the demolished Chai Hut morphed into the hope bringing Mr T, a converted French ambulance. This time, I was working in partnership with The Bless Network (www.blessnet.eu) whose funds secured Mr T's purchase. I relocated to Calais to serve full time in the Jungle with Mr T from April, and almost 200 people came out to help over the following 6 months.
People are inspired by the miraculous stories and there are certainly some to tell. There was the time a boy was prayed for on the side of the road, with an injured knee from trying to jump on a lorry. Our team, 'lost' on the way to a shop, stopped to help, prayed for him and he was instantly healed. And there was the time a large demonstration was planned in Calais, a recipe for violence. Following a dream we prayed prophetically, and the event passed peacefully - in fact, as a non event. Or I could recount the way one of our volunteers was able to walk on site during demolition week without a pass, as if invisible (the absence of a pass was purely an admin error). There are more miracles of prayers answered, lives changed, God intervening at his supernatural best.
But there are countless stories also of the smaller, more everyday miracles. Of lives turned around by a kindness, a conversation, a safe place to come each day where the harsher camp realities were a little distant for a time. There is the Afghan man who hugged a small child, tears in his eyes, explaining, 'he is the same age as my son.' The volunteer who sat for hours each day writing songs with a young Sudanese man. The laughter-bringing games of frisbee, Jenga, Scrabble. The complete reversal of intent of one man, first angry, shouting, incensed that we were there, but from the following day, bringing us sweet delicious milky tea from his own home by way of apology - for days and days on end. The many opportunities we had to pray peace for people, to bring their needs to a loving God who cares. The frequently heard sung truths ringing around the van of our Good Father, with so many joining in the refrain, 'It's who I am, it's who I am'. The way friends were made in the camp, around the van, between Sudanese and Afghan, Pakistani and Eritrean. The surprise of our customers as often we also joined the line for tea - explaining we are all the same, we are all precious, all of equal value.
One unforgettable evening found us sitting - then dancing - with an Afghan man with mental health needs, while other volunteers arranged appropriate overnight provision for him. He had discharged himself from hospital and was extremely vulnerable and in need of constant care. We chatted, drank tea, worshipped and danced by the van as night fell and as fires burned a few hundred metres away. The leader of the Ethiopian church joined us as we worshipped, and we were in awe of how God arranges everything, how he goes after the one, and how beauty wraps its arms around pain.
And there are stories of volunteers' lives changed. Those who God brought to us, some without faith in him yet, touched by his presence. As one of them explained, 'Mr T has a way of healing hearts a little.' And the many from church groups and organisations who brought their own fire, passion, compassion, and who all left having received so much more than they gave. Challenged and changed by the resilience, joy, tragic stories and outrageous hope that so many of our customers carried. Hearts broken by the injustices they heard about and worked amongst. Daily debriefs as a team left us in awe again and again at what God had done, simply because we turned up, served tea, and loved people.
The Calais camp has now been entirely dismantled following the eviction and relocation of all its residents at the end of October. During the final week, our customers gradually became fewer daily, and many called by to thank us, to take one final drink of sugary tea, with their life possessions in rucksacks on their backs, before heading to the coaches that would take them to some distant centre in France. Our backdrop was frequently the dark smoke of the jungle's fires, but we were at a safe distance and continued to pour out tea and love as normal. By Thursday, most of our customers were on bikes - we were a 'drive through / ride through' tea van by then!
What have I learnt? So much. Essentially, that loving people is simple, and this is the life call for each of us. That people are hungry for the presence of God, and He is quick to meet with them. Do I have a particularly compassionate heart? Well, no, but my heart is larger for the time I spent in the Jungle, because it is in loving that we learn to love.