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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Givens

Brokenness and Joy

Every day at the Maria Skobtsova House (MSH), there are any number of possible things that can happen. Sometimes nothing happens. It’s just a normal day with housekeeping, grocery shopping, playing with kids, and prayer. Occasionally those days even feel boring, especially for someone like me who likes to keep busy. But then there are the other days. We get a call from the Women’s Centre that there is a family or single woman that we need to welcome. A woman needs to go to the hospital. People are coming over for a meeting and dinner. As you can probably guess, all the things I’ve mentioned tend to happen all at once. I want to share two stories with you that I think illustrate the highs and lows of the work we do at MSH.

Story 1:

It’s morning, I am sitting at the table, eating breakfast with our guests and trying to plan out the day with the volunteers. The young girl looks out the window and shouts, “It’s Samri* and Mohammed*!” The guests who left last night are back. Everyone stands up and runs to the door to greet them. There are too many people in the hallway, so I go into the kitchen to tidy up a bit, figuring I’ll get to welcome them back soon on my own. I hear a commotion in the hall. I go to look, and Samri is lying on the floor, head cradled in Rachel’s arms. The Iranian mom rushes into the kitchen and asks for salt. She takes the salt and instructs Rachel to sprinkle some in Samri’s mouth. Our volunteer begins crying. I find out that Samri has fainted. I don’t learn the story until much later that day.

She and her friends were on the beach, waiting to cross to the UK. The police arrived and began spraying smoke and teargas on the crowd of migrants. The people were already tired and forced to run for their safety. Samri almost passed out on the beach, but somehow managed to walk back to MSH with her friends. She is broken. She is tired.

We rush her to her bed and tell her that if she is not feeling better later, we will take her to the doctor. She and her friends go to sleep and sleep most of the day. When Rachel is finally able to talk with her, she hugs Rachel tightly and won’t let go. She begins sobbing into Rachel’s arms. No words are spoken, but we know. We are well aware of how the police treat migrants in Calais. We are aware that in the eyes of the authorities, they’re nothing more than cockroaches. They’re not human beings with dreams and desires. They’re a pest that needs to be exterminated. Our hearts break with and for Samri and her friends. We know them and love them. Everyone in the house is shaken by this injustice for the rest of the day. If only this were a one-time event. But it’s not. It happens in Calais every single day.

Story 2:

It’s my birthday, March 21, 2023. Mostly the day at MSH is boring. There’s nothing too eventful happening. Routine meetings with the Women’s Centre and others. We wanted to go to Dunkirk this afternoon, but the meetings got in the way, so we choose to go to Notre Dame Cathedral in Calais instead. It’s a beautiful medieval church, one of the few medieval buildings that survived World War II. We take Samri and her friend, as well as our new volunteer and my brother, who is visiting. We enjoy wandering the garden and seeing the outside of the beautiful old building (disappointingly, the doors are locked).

We go back to MSH for dinner. We have a lovely dinner with pasta, chicken, and various breads and sauces. Then we share a precious moment of prayer with anyone who would like to join. The Iranian mom has baked two cakes, one for me and one for her daughter, who turned 11 yesterday. She makes her daughter and me sit down and brings out the two cakes. Everyone sings Happy Birthday, and we each get one candle to blow out. Then she makes her daughter and me cut the first slice of cake before she takes over. The cake is delicious! It is a truly touching experience.

Next we go to meet some friends at a local pub. We invite the adults at MSH to join us. The Iranian mom and her husband are happy to. They haven’t had a night out without their children in a long time. At the pub, two of our friends are waiting for us. They have brought me a bottle of wine and a crown from the local Burger King. I feel foolish, but I wear the crown most of the night. We spend the evening talking and laughing, giving everyone a brief respite from the stress of life. My brother is at home with our boys, so we enjoy a free evening as well.

Finally, we disperse and head to our respective homes. I hear my phone ding. I check my messages, and find out it’s from some former guests of MSH who left several days ago. It’s a short message: “We have arrived safely thanks to God.” I tell Rachel, and she screams and throws her arms in the air. Our friends are safe in the UK, as was their dream. It’s an Ethiopian man and his pregnant wife. They had their baby examined, and the baby is also safe. We celebrate a perfect end to a beautiful birthday.

Such is life in Calais. Sometimes the lows are so low that I wonder if it’s worth it anymore. But then the small thing happens, like a message letting me know that our friends are safe. The highs make the lows bearable. Knowing that what we do really matters is wonderful and uplifting.

Prayer: God, give us the grace to keep going. Give us peace beyond all understanding. Give us joy as we celebrate with our friends. Give us compassion and empathy when people are hurting. Most of all, help us to be Jesus to the suffering and to love without restraint. For you have loved us, and you know us better than we know ourselves. Help us weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

*I've changed the names of the people involved in this story to protect their identities.

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