I visited the Calais Jungle in early March with Lynn Green, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
The goal was to help her see what was happening and give her some insight into the work I and some colleagues (notably Juliet Kilpin, a Baptist minister and coordinator of Urban Expression) are doing there.
In the course of our visit, we spent half an hour with some Iranian brothers who started a hunger strike on the day the demolitions of the southern part of the camp started.
They had sewn their lips together and refused food until the French authorities acted to resolve the situation of everyone in the jungle justly, in accordance with France’s commitment to the human rights of all people.
A good number of these Iranians are Christians, fleeing religious persecution but facing (as they see it) complete indifference from Europe.
As I sat with these brothers, I reflected on the fact that I have many times shared with my students at Spurgeon’s College that the New Testament teaches that Christian witness often involves the church being shredded for the salvation of the nations; that Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him is potentially an invitation to die.
As I looked into the eyes of these Iranian brothers, I saw what that meant: Here were people prepared to suffer – perhaps even to die – for the peace and freedom of those who shared their current plight.
Greater love has no one, I thought, than those that lay down their lives for their friends. I was deeply affected by this half-hour.
A few weeks after my visit – on a Wednesday afternoon – the prefecture visited the Iranians. They offered them the chance to have their asylum applications fast-tracked, even to get assistance to apply for asylum in the United Kingdom if that’s what they wanted. All they had to do was give up their protest.
Their response was to remind the prefecture that they are not protesting on their own behalf but on behalf of everyone in the jungle, that they will not stop until everyone receives justice.
I gather it was a bit of a dialogue of the deaf, with the people from the prefect’s office leaving feeling completely baffled at the Iranians’ stance. But I wonder if that’s how it was.
Two days later, word reached us that the prefect’s office had decided that it would not proceed with the destruction of the northern part of the camp.
Indeed, it would work with the volunteer groups providing support and assistance to the community to ensure that the camp got the resources it needed.
To this end, L’Auberge and the other groups that provide support to the camp have conducted a fresh census to determine how many people now live in the northern part of the camp, so that support can be directed at the most vulnerable.
Now this is good news. And it seems to have come out of the blue.
But I wonder: Could there be a connection between the meeting of the Iranians and the prefect’s office, and the prefect’s announcement?
I have no evidence to support this, just a hunch that there is something powerful about the witness of the powerless to those with power that turns events in unexpected ways.
Paul said something about God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
“God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:28).
It seems to me that this explains what happened in Calais recently: The nothings of the world nullified what is and God’s wily way of working through weakness and insignificant things changed the plans the powerful made to silence the powerless.
God once again shows himself to be sneakily at work where he’s not invited or welcomed – except by those who have no other prayer but that he’ll come to their aid in their distress.
On Good Friday, the Iranians stopped their hunger strike. The promise from the prefect’s office that they would not demolish the northern part of the camp was sufficient to end their protest.
It remains to be seen if there has been the start of a new relationship between the camp and the authorities.
Simon Jones is ministry team leader at Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a suburb of London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.
A writer and Baptist minister, Jones is about to step down from his role as Vice Principal of Spurgeon’s College in London to concentrate on working with Peaceful Borders, offering support to displaced people in Calais and London.