This is the makeshift church known as St Michael’s, built by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians living in the so-called “Jungle” camp just outside Calais. There’s been a lot of noise and comment this week about the BBC’s decision to broadcast part of this week’s “Songs of Praise” from here. The Sun and the Mail have criticized the BBC for wasting tax payers’ money and giving publicity to the situation of those in the camp, describing this as yet again the BBC getting involved inappropriately in politics at a ‘sensitive’ time. Many Christians have rushed to the BBC’s defence. Bishop Nick Baines has said that filming “Songs of Praise” at the camp will bring viewers “to a place where worship is at the raw end of life. If we don’t like it, we must ask why not.”
Interesting as all this is, what’s most striking about this story is not the BBC’s decision, but the simple fact of the church’s existence. I try to imagine myself as one of those 5,000 people camped outside Calais. I try to imagine a life far from Calais, perhaps in Syria, or Libya, or Eritrea, where it’s part of my everyday experience to struggle to get food for me and my family; where I regularly face poverty, danger, or violence. I try to imagine what it must be like for the situation to get so bad that it drives me, through a mixture of desperation and hope, to leave behind everything that I know, and to seek the possibility of a new life – a better life, where I don’t have to live in fear for myself or my family, with the chance to work to provide myself with food and clothes and a roof over my head, and I can enjoy a kind of peace that is simply not possible in my land of origin. I try to imagine myself making a perilous journey of hundreds or thousands of miles, with little in the way of money or resources, to a country where I can’t speak more than perhaps a few basic words of the language, sustained by the hope of a better life. And then I imagine myself living in a camp alongside thousands of people in the same situation, with barely adequate food or accommodation. Is my first response to praise God? With no real roof over my own head, is my priority to help build a place where I can come together with others to praise and worship and pray to God?
I honestly don’t know. But it clearly was the case for some of those who’ve made their way to Calais. Amidst the insecurity, the living hand-to-mouth, with so very little, about 30 Orthodox Ethiopian Christians felt that what they needed to do was to create a place where they could sustain their faith and hope by gathering with fellow Christians to give praise and worship to God. Apparently, at its busiest, around 500 people gather there. Wow.
St Michael’s is a powerful witness to the gospel, and the centrality of God in the lives of those who gather in the Jungle camp. It speaks of hope in the darkest places and most desperate situations. It’s a witness being heard and spread across the world through the media. For the people of St Michael’s, the words of psalm 71 are far from ancient and irrelevant, but part of their lived experience – “ In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go, for you are my rock and my fortress… For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth… But as for me, I shall always have hope…”
St Michael’s says that the people who gather there are people like us. They are whole people, people with not just bodies and minds, but spirits. Their need to proclaim just how important this spiritual aspect of who they are has driven them to construct this makeshift church, held together by duct tape and faith, when others might say they could have been doing something more ‘useful’. And perhaps that’s one of the things that has made the BBC’s critics uncomfortable. It’s much easier to ignore the people of the Jungle, or to condemn them as the agents of their own misfortunes, if we can think of them as ‘other’, different from us – shiftless, lazy, on the make, looking for a cushy life, a soft touch, demanding a right to be looked after which they haven’t somehow earned. This evidence that at least some of them are stretching their hands out to something beyond themselves, to a transcendent God in whom they continue to have faith against all the odds, is unsettling for many people – particularly those who have managed to deny or suppress their own spiritual nature, people who can’t accept or acknowledge that there is a God, and that God is the source of all that we are and have.
I think that Paul would have recognized and rejoiced in exactly what it is that has driven the people of the Jungle to build their church. In Philippians 1, Paul writes to the people of the church in Philippi from prison. We don’t know exactly where Paul was when he wrote this letter – perhaps Rome, or Ephesus. But wherever it is, Paul describes himself as in chains. This seems to have been something of an occupational hazard for Paul – preaching the gospel often brought him into conflict with those in power, and he was imprisoned on more than one occasion. But despite this, the tone of this passage is one of joy.
In verse 12, Paul says, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” You might think that being imprisoned would have been a hindrance rather than a help in proclaiming the good news about Jesus. After all, it rather restricts the number of people with whom Paul can be in contact. But for Paul,this is another example of what he writes later in Romans, chapter 8 verse 28 – “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The palace guard have all become aware of the reason why Paul has been imprisoned – because he has been proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour. And somehow his situation seems to have inspired others, as it says in verse 14, “…to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly”. It might be that his absence left a hole which others were drawn to fill, or it might be that they were inspired by his example to follow in Paul’s footsteps when they saw just how committed Paul was to his task of proclaiming the Gospel, whatever the consequences might be.
And even the motives of those who preach Christ don’t matter! People are preaching about him from motives which are less than pure: envy, rivalry, selfish ambition, a desire to make more trouble for Paul. Sure, there are some other people preaching out of goodwill and in love. But whatever the reason, and despite his own situation, Paul says that what really matters, what is of supreme importance, is that Christ should be preached. People should have as many chances as possible to hear about Jesus. However it is spread, whatever the means, the most important thing is that the gospel should be proclaimed.
Which brings us back to the people of St Michael’s. Building their church is a proclamation of the centrality of the gospel, of Jesus, to their lives. The church stands as a very public witness to the their faith in him. And I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why the BBC’s decision to go there has upset some people. They don’t want to be reminded that for many people across the world, their Christian faith is at the core of who they are. In an increasingly secularized society, many people are uncomfortable being reminded that faith is more than a private matter. They’d prefer to think of it as a kind of bizarre hobby, something that a few weird people choose to indulge in and which they can safely be left to get on with, as long as it doesn’t interfere with real life. They’d like to think that it is something that is withering away, dying quietly, something that needn’t trouble them or confront them with truths that they would prefer to avoid about what really matters. Church buildings in this country often become just part of the landscape – maybe forming a picturesque backdrop, or they’re relics of a more superstitious and less sophisticated age, a historical legacy with some possible cultural or heritage interest, but no real ongoing relevance.
St Michael’s isn’t like that. It’s got no architectural merit. It’s made of bits of wood, plastic sheeting and sticky tape. It looks wobbly and shabby. It’s a testament to the perseverance of those who built it and worship there, who haven’t given up on their vision of a different life, a vision sustained by their faith in a God who came from heaven to earth to be born like one of them. A God who knows what it is to be poor, to live in a land under military occupation, to have been forced to flee persecution and danger. A God who as a human being taught about a kingdom where there was good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, sight for the blind. A God who experienced suffering and death, and then overcame death itself. A God in whom all people can find hope.
That’s the gospel that Paul proclaimed. That’s the gospel that the church in the Jungle represents. It’s a gospel that has always challenged those in power and authority, who would prefer it to go away. But it’s a gospel that’s needed as much today as it has ever been. The Jungle church is a powerful contemporary symbol of that gospel, which continues to challenge and unsettle the status quo. What matters is that the gospel is proclaimed. And when pictures like that of St Michael’s spread around the world and challenge people to think again about what it represents, then, like Paul, we too should rejoice.