Mediterranean Hope: A visit to Lampedusa

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Reflections from former Methodist General Secretary the Revd Dr Martyn Atkins on his visit to Lampedusa in May 2015.  

"Seeing you are coming to speak at our Conference" said Alessandra Trotta, President of OPCEMI - the Methodist Church in Italy, "why not come a little early and visit our work with migrants and refugees?" So I did.

Lampedusa is stunning. A small Island, south of Malta, it's geographically nearer to Tunisia and Libya than to Italy. The old industry of fishing has now become tourism; though recently there are worrying signs of a decline in visitors. For hundreds of years it's been a stopping place for boats travelling between what we now call Europe and Africa, and I'd never heard of it before it began to be mentioned in the news as the place where migrants and refugees fleeing various parts of Africa today ended up - alive or dead.

Readers of the Methodist Recorder will have read or seen accounts of capsized boats, men women and children drowned, trapped in the hold as unseaworthy vessels go down, and the better stories of people rescued, still alive and delivered to land. For many such poor folk, their first destination is Lampedusa.

There are clear signs of this grave role. A 'boat graveyard' is located next to a modern harbour; smashed wooden tubs sit a mere 100 yards from expensive luxury vessels. A 'reception depot' for migrants, with no public access, is located in the countryside. Neat graffiti on the wall of the Mayor's office states 'Protect people - not borders.'

I'm sure there are locals who would dispute that last statement, but in my short stay I didn't find many. One lady said to me, quite heatedly when she knew I came from the UK, "We've been receiving migrants for thousands of years, this isn't a new problem. And we're glad to help. What's new is the scale." Then she scowled at me and stated something I heard repeatedly: "This is a European problem, a global problem, and it needs big answers. You think this is a humanitarian problem. Well it is, but it's also a political problem and it needs political answers. You tell your government that!"

Indeed the Lampedusians I met were generally more critical of 'media people' and the growing use of the island as a military base than they were about migrants and refugees. One local man told me, "We're tired of people who come for 2 days, then go away and write a book which tells us who we are. Instead of saying 'you are', you should ask 'are you?' then listen."

So I'm deeply aware that in writing this piece I am falling into the very trap which so irritates him! So let me tell you about Marta and Francesco. They live in Lampedusa, have been there some time and will be there a lot longer. In the small population of some 6,000 people they are well known and liked. They work for a project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI - of which the Methodist Church in Italy is a significant part) called 'Mediterranean Hope'. They live as locals, listening and learning, sharing with people like us a 'how it really is' account from a Christian perspective. Look them up at www.mediterraneanhope.org.

Then there's the other main part of the Mediterranean Hope project, which I also visited. Casa delle culture (house of culture) is in Scicli in south Sicily. It is a 'guesting centre' where migrant 'guests' come to stay, sent by the Italian authorities, often for very short periods of 2-3 days before moving on to other facilities further into Italy. There I met other saints of God, such as Ciccio the local Methodist pastor, Erica the 'house mother' and Oswaldo the anthropologist. And, most importantly, Yolande and her baby boy -migrants from Cote D'Ivoire.

"We have a small window of time," Massimo Aquilante, President of FCEI told me, "just a handful of days to show these poor people something of God's love, some care, assure them of their value." There's also a deep fear, borne of considerable evidence, that just as many migrant refugees fall victim to evil smugglers who charge a fortune and promise a route to freedom only to abandon them on the sea: once 'rescued' they find themselves prey to slave labour and trafficking. Safe places are crucial.

Running the Mediterranean Hope project isn't cheap. Certainly those involved welcome financial support and are well worthy of it. But the bulk of the money comes through a channel which itself is not without cost. It comes from a state tax - not dissimilar from the Church tax in Germany - whereby citizens of Italy can nominate a religious grouping to receive a small proportion of their tax. For a long time Evangelical Churches resisted receiving this source of funding. It smacked of 'reliance' or even suggested a 'belonging' to an establishment which went against every theological bone in their Protestant body. So coming to accept it was not easy, and required them to decide that money from this source could not and should not be spent 'on themselves'. Rather they must use it for purposes of God's mission. Hence Mediterranean Hope.

There are clear shorter and longer term aspects of the project. In the shorter term these Christian sisters and brothers of ours are expressing deep concern that migrants are dying in waters and we are not, as a European family, doing enough to stop that. Marta told me, "There are two main stereotypes operating: the migrant as a bad man and the migrant as a poor man. Most European policy proceeds on the basis that one or other is the case, so we protect ourselves, but these people on the frontline suggest a policy for regular and safe migration is urgently needed."

In the longer term there is the winsome and equally Christian hope of the 'House of Culture'. Mediterranean Hope has a vision of a place where those from very different cultures live together, experience each other as humans and friends, and so make a small but symbolic contribution to one of the greatest needs on planet earth today: living together in peace, honour and respect. 

In recent weeks I have, like many of you, felt shame at being a Methodist, at the ways in which our Church has failed to protect those who are most vulnerable and to create safe spaces. But flying out of Lampedusa for the Methodist Conference in Rome, I felt grateful to God that 'we' were there, incarnating, seeking to be a source of strong love and gritty compassion. And a scripture from the book of Hebrews came to me: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it."

This article first appeared in The Methodist Recorder and is reproduced with their permission. 

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