25 June 2019

Where are refugees and
migrants to hear the ‘Prophetic
Voice of the Church’ today?

The High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon this morning after last night’s rain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Where is the Prophetic Voice of the Church to be heard today? This question keeps being asked at this year’s three-day conference of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

The conference is taking place at the High Leigh Conference Centre at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, and the conference theme is ‘The Prophetic Voice of the Church.’

Today’s programme has taken the form of a stand-alone event that supporters could take part today in a one-day conference.

The world of mission has shifted from a one-way process to partnership, we were told this morning by the Right Revd Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of Central Tanganyika in Tanzania.

‘The Church in Africa is the Church of the Poor,’ he said, ‘… but the Church in the West has much to learn from us.’ He spoke movingly about suffering and trusting in God. We are not merely human beings but ‘human becomings.’

Bishop Dickson said to be prophetic is to speak on God’s behalf. He reminded us that the majority of prophets in the Old Testament were not priests but lay people, ordinary people, like Amos the farmer who was a shepherd and who was looking after sycamore trees.

These prophets told the truth about power and society, spoke on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, and predicted the consequences of the events of their day, pointing to the choice between impending judgment and redemption.

For the Prophetic Voice of the Church to be heard today, lay participation is crucial.

We also heard three very different perspectives from three priests working on the margins with refugees and migrants.

The Biblical background for our discussion with a ‘migration panel’ was provided by the Revd Dr Evie Vernon O’Brien, who read two relevant Bible passages:

‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.’ (Deuteronomy 26: 5-7)

… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt ... (Matthew 2: 13-15)

The speakers and guests were drawn from West Africa, North Africa, and Europe:

● the Revd Canon St Obed Arist Kojo Baiden of the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia;

● the Revd Dennis Obidiegwu, chaplain of Saint Andrew’s Church, Tangier, Morocco;

● the Revd Canon Kirilee Reid, chaplain and refugee projects officer in Calais in France.

Many of the people they work with are strong young men and women, most have children. Today, there are about 550 displaced people living in Calais, more up the coast in Dunkirk. When the Jungle disbanded, just means more dispersed, more needs, and difficult to defend their human rights.

Canon St Obed Arist Kojo Baiden asked what is the difference between refugees and migrants. There is a fine difference, he said, but added: ‘All of us are migrants, for all of us are on the move.’

Father Dennis told us, ‘One life that is lost the whole world cannot replace.’

This afternoon we hear snippets and stories from people who have returned from ‘Journey with Us’ programmes in Tanzania, St Vincent and elsewhere. We also heard from the Right Revd Calvert Leopold Friday, Bishop of the Windward Islands in the Church of the Province of the West Indies.

Later in the afternoon, there was a choice from five workshops:

● Mission stories from North India (with Bishop Probal Kanto Dutta of Calcutta);

● Going back, going forward, what is home? (with a Migration Panel);

● Engaging Church and Community in Global Mission (with Davidson Solanki and Fran Mate);

● The Prophetic Voice in the UK and Ireland (with the Revd Duncan Dormor and the Revd Evie Vernon O’Brien).

● Journey with Us (with Habib Nader).

Before the end of the day, there is a meeting of the USPG Council this evening, closing with night prayer.

The final day of the conference tomorrow (26 June 2019) begins again with a Bible study led by the Very Revd Gloria Mapangdol from the Philippines, and morning discussions on Speaking Truth to Power, led by Cathrine Fungai Ngangira from Zimbabwe, a second year ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham University, and on the 2020 Lambeth Conference, led by Canon Richard Bartlett.

The celebrant at our closing Eucharist tomorrow is Bishop Calvert Leopold Friday from the Windward Islands, and the preacher is Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland, who has visited the Diocese of Killaloe many times.

In the grounds of the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hearing Mary, the Magnificat,
the Marginalised, and the
Prophetic Voice of the Church

An image of Mary in a quiet corner at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, provided the opening focus this morning at the second day of the USPG conference in High Leigh.

The annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is taking place at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

The conference theme this year is The Prophetic Voice of the Church, and this is linked to the USPG Bible study course with the same name.

We began the day today [25 June 2019] with the Morning Eucharist celebrated by the Very Revd Dr Gloria Lita D Mapangdol, President and Dean of Saint Andrew's Theological Seminary in the Philippines. Later she led us in her Bible study on the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-5), which was the Gospel reading at the Eucharist:

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Gloria introduced the Magnificat as the prelude to Lucan theme of reversal. Here is a young woman from an insignificant town and family, who has her life turned upside down.

She calls for solidarity with the poor and the oppressed as she speaks or sings about her concern for the poor and the marginalised.

She challenges the powers by identifying herself with the suffering and the voiceless, and looks to God’s justice and mercy for all

Could we have missed the real Mary?

Are we called to be like Mary, who could be seen as a spokesperson for the Church?
Are we courageous enough to take risk like Mary?

She left us with three questions to discuss:

● How can we become the prophetic voices of our communities?

● Are we willing to take risks to give voice and hope to those who do not have them?

● How can we in the Church strengthen or recover our prophetic ministry in today’s world?

Morning flowers at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A plaque in Cambridge is
a reminder of the needs
and plight of refugees

No 22 Station Road, Cambridge, where 29 Basque children found refuge in 1938-1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

On my way to the USPG conference at High Leigh in Hoddesdon, I spent a few hours in Cambridge yesterday morning [24 June 2019], browsing in some of my favourite bookshops and dropping in to Sidney Sussex College to see the wisteria that remains in Hall Court.

As I walked along Station Road from the train station to the centre of Cambridge, I notice for the first time a blue plaque on a house at 22 Station Road commemorating the Basque refugees children who found solace in Cambridge and refuge from the terrors of the Spanish Civil War just as World War II was about to break out.

This plaque on Station Road in Cambridge reads:

From January 1938 to November 1939
twenty-nine Basque Children, refugees
from the Spanish Civil War, were
cared for by local volunteers in
this house provided by
Jesus College.

The destruction of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War inspired Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece of the same name. But it also brought almost 4,000 children from Spain to Britain as refugees.

Public opinion in Britain was outraged by the destruction of Guernica, the first-ever saturation bombing of a civilian population. The Basque government appealed to foreign nations to give temporary asylum to the children, but the British government adhered to its policy of non-intervention.

The Duchess of Atholl, who was President of the National Committee for Spanish Relief, launched a campaign calling on the British government to accept the Basque children. Finally, the British Government conceded and granted permission, albeit reluctantly.

However, the government refused to be responsible financially for the children, claiming this would violate the non-intervention pact and supposed British neutrality in the Spanish Civil War. The government demanded that the newly-formed Basque Children’s Committee guarantee 10 shillings a week for the care and education of each child – 10 shillings or 50p may not seem much today, but it was the equivalent of about £33 in 2019 spending power.

The children left for Britain on the steamship Habana on 21 May 1937. Each child had been given a cardboard hexagonal disc to pin on his or her clothes with an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra (‘Expedition to England’) on it.

Originally, the ship was only supposed to carry around 800 passengers. But when it sailed, it carried 3,480 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 Roman Catholic priests and two doctors. The children were crammed into the boat, and slept where they could, some even sleeping in the lifeboats. The journey was extremely rough in the Bay of Biscay and during the journey most of the children were violently seasick.

The steamer arrived at Southampton two days later, on 23 May 1937. Thousands of people lined the quayside and the children, in spite of their ordeal, were excited, thinking the bunting everywhere was to celebrate their arrival. Later, they realised it had been put up to mark the coronation of King George VI 10 days earlier.

When they disembarked, the children were sent in busloads to a camp that had been set up in three fields at North Stoneham in Eastleigh in south Hampshire. The camp had been set up in less than two weeks thanks to a remarkable effort by the whole community. Volunteers had worked round the clock and all through the Bank Holiday to prepare the cap.

The children were completely unprepared for the camping. Most of them had lived in densely packed flats in working-class districts in Bilboa, one of the most industrialised cities in Spain. Indeed, many of the children did not stay there long. The idea was to send them on to homes or ‘colonies’ as soon as possible. The Basque government insisted they stay in groups in order to preserve their national identity.

The first to offer asylum was the Salvation Army, which offered to take 400. Next was the Roman Catholic Church, with a commitment to take 1,200 children. Little by little, from the end of May, the children left the provisional camp in groups to go to other homes all across Britain and staffed and financed by volunteers, church groups and trade unions.

From June 1937 until January 1938, 29 children from the ‘Ayuda Social’ orphanage in Bilbao, whose fathers were militiamen and had been killed in the early stages of the war, were housed in a former derelict vicarage at Pampisford, near Sawston, south of Cambridge.

The plaque at 22 Station Road, Cambridge, recalls a time when refugees were welcome in Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

They were transferred in January 1938 to a house in Station Road, Cambridge, leased by Jesus College. They would stay there until November 1939. The Cambridge colony was considered one of the most privileged.

All the children had been brought up in an intensely political atmosphere and they were very receptive to and benefited from the support of local academics and students. A programme of child-centred educational activities was drawn up, with the mornings being dedicated to schoolwork, and the afternoons to painting, music and handicrafts.

The children produced their own monthly magazine Ayuda. Their music teacher was the Spanish composer and pianist Rosa García Ascot, also known as Rosita Bal (1902-2202), a pupil of the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). She trained them in music and dances that they performed in concerts all over East Anglia and London.

At the time, the Cambridge classicist Professor Francis Cornford (1874-1943) of Trinity College Cambridge, was Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy. His son, the poet John Cornford (1915-1936), had been killed fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. Professor Cornford invited the children to spend a month in the summer of 1938 at his mill at Ringstead, on the Norfolk coast.

The Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Hugh Fraser Stewart (1863-1948), and his wife Jessie were also involved actively with the children. They offered them hospitality, and their daughter Frida organised fundraising tours throughout Britain for the Cambridge colony’s concert party. Incidentally, it was also Hugh and Jessie Stewart who took TS Eliot to Little Gidding on 23 May 1936, a visit that Jessie had been proposed a decade earlier. Eliot’s interest had been aroused by a play he had been given to read by George Every, dealing with the contact Charles I had had with the Little Gidding community in 1646.

After the fall of Bilbao and Franco’s capture of the rest of northern Spain, the process of repatriation began. By the late 1940s, most of the children had been reunited with their families, either in Spain or in exile. But over 250 children settled permanently in Britain.

Despite the hardships these children endured, life in the colonies was a unique experience of community living. From a practical point of view, it was a positive experience – there were undoubtedly happy times – nevertheless, they would never forget their underlying sadness and the anxiety of separation from their families.

The plaque today is a reminder of how the rise of far-right populism and nationalism destroyed Europe 80 years ago, and a reminder of why we continue to need European unity and compassion. I wondered yesterday whether children with the same needs would be welcome in Britain today?

Would refugee children find a similar welcome in Britain today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)