The high road to compassion

18 January 2019

An extended cycle ride enhanced David Munchin‘s compassion for refugees


I HAD long planned to start my sabbatical with a solo, unsupported, long-distance cycle ride. Originally, I had thought of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, but when a friend got a job in Rome and promised me a spare room in exchange for gin, the decision was made to turn left rather than right at Calais.

I was initially reluctant to accept any kind of sponsorship — that was not the object of the exercise, and, given that modern sponsorship is generally ante factum, I felt anxious in case I should fail to complete the journey. In the end, however, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Having asked the church community what they wanted to support, we decided on a charity that supports Syrian refugee families who have settled in the area. It turned out to be an inspired choice.

I HAVE served as a parish priest for nearly 20 years, and in a variety of contexts. Some have been wealthy, and some not so, but — however comfortable people’s circumstances — there are always commonalities when it comes to pastoral care: people get sick; people die; relationships go wrong.

That truism, however, tells only part of the story. Certain contingencies, or at least their more profound effects, can be alleviated by money. Globally (and we should reflect how lucky we are to be largely shielded from this by the NHS), money dictates access to treatment, and poverty is closely correlated to life expectancy.

Relationships are made more difficult when poverty and need are factors. Access to financial services, insurance, and information technology makes lives more secure and stable.

The point of this pilgrimage — and, actually, of any pilgrimage, whether consciously or not — is to strip ourselves of some of these comforts, and open ourselves up the contingencies of life on the road. While my own journey (as I will make clear) was far from that of a refugee, within its own parameters it fulfilled its aim.

NOW, I should say that, mostly, it was rewarding. Sometimes it was fun, and even joyous. At times, it was hard work, frustrating, wet, and a bit miserable. There is probably a special word for the four-hour climbs over the Alps and Apennines on a bike laden with three weeks’ worth of stuff, but I’ll just settle for “knackering” — alhough even that won’t quite do, because, alongside that, there was a sense of being “in the zone”, as the pros say.

And, incidentally, those two monster climbs were the only occasions when another “pilgrim” quite by chance came alongside and rode with me — a shout-out to Thomas and Mattheo.

Until I reached the door of the flat in Rome, however, I was constantly aware of the things that could go wrong. Strangely, the effort of cycling was the easy bit. Sure, I’d never ridden a laden bike over those mountains, but I’d done enough cycling to know that the daily distance was — mostly — reasonably modest.

It was the other contingencies that worried me: a crash, a mechanical failure that couldn’t be quickly fixed, injury, illness, losing vital bits of kit (or their being stolen), vital bits of kit breaking. That was the slightly fixating list which was going round in my head most nights, particularly at the start of the adventure. And those were, perhaps, the sorts of things that I did have in common with refugees on the road.

I WAS also acutely aware, however, of the advantages that I had while on the road — mostly accessed by that wonderful little hand-held electronic device: my mobile phone. For a start, and perhaps most importantly, I knew where I was going, and had a definite destination. I would be rewarded by a month in a comfortable flat in the wonderful city of Rome. I even had a GPS, which had plotted the 1500-mile route down to the last turn (well, nearly).

That hand-held device booked me a room every night, and enabled me to contact loved ones and anyone else I needed to be in touch with; it found me food, laundrettes (very important, they don’t exist in Switzerland, incidentally), and cycle shops.

I had cards that gave me access to cash and paid for stuff. Another card guaranteed — at least for the moment — free health care across the EU. I had a document that guaranteed — at least for the moment — friction-free travel through the borders of the EU.

Every time I utilised one of these documents, devices, or privileges, I became acutely aware that refugees had none of these things; and that what, for me, was an adventure — and adventures always come with a bit of uncertainty and peril, or they aren’t adventures — without them would quickly become a gut-wrenchingly anxious and fearfully uncertain journey.

I WOULD like to be able to say that all of this brought me closer to God, strengthened my faith, and made me realise the extent of my dependency on him, but, frankly I think it’s too soon to tell: ask me in five years’ time. I don’t think faith and life experience have that direct, causal dependency that would allow us glibly to assert that, if you have Jesus by your side, being a refugee is just like going on a big adventure — rather as Silvio Berlusconi told homeless earthquake victims to treat it as a camping holiday.

God being our only hope, the contingencies of life are always real, and our only vocation to the other is to offer security, aid, and refuge from them.

The Revd Dr David Munchin is Team Rector in the Welwyn Team Ministry.

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