An Interview with Brother Johannes Maertens, monk and missionary
This interview was conducted by Henrietta Cullinan, peace writer and member of the London Catholic Worker, and recently featured on the ICN website. Johannes is a monk and missionary, currently a member of the London Catholic Worker, and involved in pastoral care towards young Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in London.
HC: First tell me how long were you involved in helping the refugees of Calais?
JM: I had been going to Calais occasionally, since 2004, in solidarity with the
refugees living there on the streets, but it was August 2015 when Juan Peris from the London Catholic Worker and I arrived in Calais to visit and stay at the big Jungle camp, and to meet up with a local parish priest, Jean-Marie.
Juan had already visited the camp a few weeks earlier and some of the young Sudanese refugees, who recognised him, offered to ‘lodge’ us in one of their little houses made of plastic canvas. We stayed with them for several day and nights. Later, with the help of Secours Catholique and the support of the Passionist UK we were able to open Maria Skobtsova House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, in February 2016. I remained in the house until June 2019.
HC: Tell me how the spiritual life of Maria Skobtsova House began.
JM: The spiritual life and work of Maria Skobtsova House really began in the Jungle camp, in the now famous wooden church used by the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugee community on Sundays and for daily prayer. The church stood slightly apart from the main camp. In its beauty, it was a place to find silence, light a candle, say a prayer.
The impact of the church went far beyond its physical presence. It was a focus for volunteers and refugees of all faiths. The cross on the top and the icons inside pointed upwards, to something bigger than us, and in that way, it gave us hope. At first, I was drawn to the church out of curiosity. There was a furious racket coming from a generator they were using to run the sound system. There was noisy chanting. For someone like me from the western tradition it was a bit overwhelming. That day I was quite emotional. The misery I had seen, people living in the dunes, under plastic sheets, in makeshift dwellings, the dirt and the dust affected me, so much I couldn’t pray. I went down on my knees. Not a word came to my lips.
Words from psalms came into my head, ‘We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground … rise up and help us.’ Psalm 44:25-26.
The next time I went to the church, it was nearly empty. I knelt on the thin carpet and closed my eyes. When I opened them, there were some women on my right, men on my left. Even though I didn’t know their language, I knew they were praying the Our Father and Hail Mary. At that moment, I saw my brothers and sisters. I had a very strong feeling that God wanted me to be with my brothers and sisters, because that was where they were, and they were in need. That was the moment that I decided to stay there, in Calais.
I had no idea what work I would do. I thought I would clean and chop
vegetables. It was the refugees themselves who said, ‘No, come and sit with us. Have a cup of tea.’ At first, I was a bit uneasy. We couldn’t understand each other. Then I learned to just sit there. They would chop wood, build a fire, fetch water, buy milk. Unlike here at home where you just fill the kettle, there you take time to receive someone, make tea, serve it; it’s a ritual in which something happens, you patiently enjoy the moment of sharing that time with each other, waiting for the water to boil, to make the tea. I had one talk with an Arabic Sudanese man. He and I didn’t speak a word of each other’s language. The only thing we could do was look. These are very precious moments – when one human being recognises another.
The majority of refugees in Calais then, as now, were Muslim. In the camp there were places of prayer, improvised mosques. On Fridays, or for Christians on Saturday or Sunday, they went to pray. It’s part of their life. So It has to happen. Even if we are in an industrial zone in northern France, we have to glorify God. This was the gift they gave me. In the midst of misery and sometimes happiness, we have to glorify God.
When the authorities were destroying the camp, a young Afghan man beckoned to me and said, ‘Come’. He led me right into an area that was being bulldozed. He ran into a little house and brought out a booklet. It was part of St. Luke’s gospel. He said, ‘Here!’. Even if it was only part of scripture, it was sacred and so he gave it to me because I represented Christians. Three times, it happened that some of the Afghans tried to salvage copies of the Gospels. This is an anecdote that I find important for an account of faith in the camp.
HC: Tell me a bit about sharing the spiritual life of the house, day in day out, with the refugees.
JM: We always intended that the guests should feel as if they were coming into a family home, [as opposed to] a large church institution where prayer is central. It was more a place around the table where people come, meet, eat and then also share the prayer life. It quickly became a large family, with many people around that table. Most of the guests were younger than me and the other volunteers. Naturally we each became a bit of a mother or father figure. We were accepted in that role and that also had a spiritual dimension. When a guest came into the house, we were not just there to take care of them. We were also there to think about them in our prayers.
Sometimes the guests would literally ask us to do that. As the guests came home each evening, one might ask, ‘Did you pray for me?’ It was always our intention, that the house should be a place to return to, as if to a family home. But some guests themselves also wanted to feel that they were part of a community life. That meant, ‘You are part of my life and I am part of your life. You pray for me and I think of you in my prayers.’
It was always a struggle to keep the prayer rhythm more or less constant. It was our choice, as volunteers, to say morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, night prayer. When it went well, some guests joined in, especially for night prayer. With 20 people always around, plus 10 to 15 visitors per day it was a very busy house. To take the time, four times a day, to have prayer, to share a moment of silence with each other, gave structure to the day. It also gave meaning: ‘I’m not just washing your clothes because they’re dirty. I’m not just cooking for you because you’re hungry. You are my brothers and sisters.’
HC: Without prayer things could seem chaotic?
JM: There was a massive amount of work to do: just ordinary things like cleaning, washing and cooking, over and over again. If prayer was not in there the physical work would lose meaning. It would become a burden; boring even.
HC: You mention becoming part of each other’s lives, through prayer and living in community-something that we should to aspire to always.
JM: It is hard. It is not the easy option, because when we say that we are part of each other’s lives, that we share a certain level of responsibility for each other, it’s not so easy to step back. When we’re not able to help someone, it becomes painful. When there are too many people, with too many needs and too many problems, it is easy to be overwhelmed.
That is always a risk because, in a Catholic Worker house, we choose that personal commitment towards each other. It’s not about the number of people we helped; it’s about sharing our life with somebody else in God and that demands personal commitment, that demands sacrifice. Each of us has to find the energy and keep the energy. And we have accepted that not every guest in the house wants that. Many people come because they need help and they are happy that we give it, but they don’t necessarily want us to become their brother or sister. It must be their choice.
HC: Tell me how Maria Skobtsova, the Orthodox Saint, helped you in all this.
JM: When we chose Maria Skobtsova as patron saint of the house, we had a vague idea who she was but when we read more about her life from of her writings, we said ‘Wow! This really is a saintly woman who is going with us along this path.’
She also had a big house. She took care of hundreds of refugees at a time, yet she believed that her room needed to be in the heart of the house, so that she was always available; she couldn’t hide if someone needed something. I wonder where she found the energy. For her it was personal, the same as for Dorothy Day: being there with and for people. At the same time, she travelled a lot, to hospitals, psychiatric institutions and prisons to visit Russian migrants. She spent her time in chapels, she spent her time in prayer. It is a big challenge.
HC: As a visitor to the house, it seemed to me that the guests’ enthusiasm for prayer varied from week to week.
JM: The rhythm of prayer and the intensity was certainly influenced by their hope. They prayed more when they were hopeful and had energy. Sometimes when times were hard, when there was a lot of police brutality and very few of them were getting to the UK, they would prefer to sleep. We could see how hope had disappeared. There were really periods and there still are, in the house, in the camp, in the day centre, when it seems that people’s hopes have almost disappeared, when they think, why did I leave my country? Why am I here?
One of the purposes of liturgy is to lift us up, so we can glorify God. So, it’s also emotional. Sometimes people can be very down and repeating the words of the liturgy can be very heavy. In the house there was this up and down rhythm.
That was why it was important that we, volunteers, kept praying. For them to know that the prayer went on was very important.
When I left Calais, one of the guests who is now in the UK asked me, ‘And the prayer? Is the prayer going on?’ That was very touching. It’s still happening. The community still does the four prayers a day. It is a place of miracle. That is where you see that the spirit of Maria Skobtsova is quite alive there.
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