November 26th-Steve & Abagail – with audio

Steve Jungkeit and Abigail Cipparone

Texts: Acts 28: 1-2

Lessons from Lesbos: Stories from the Moria Refugee Camp


I begin by begging your pardon.  This past Monday Carleen, David Good and I ventured down to New York to catch our most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Bob Dylan.  It was a wonderful night, and I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I am to have such colleagues and friends here in Old Lyme.  But I beg your pardon and ask for your indulgence because I know well just how often he shows up in the pulpit, and I imagine more than a few of you are prone to roll your eyes.  Still, what can I say?  The man’s been on my mind. 

In particular, the words of a song that he released in 1963, “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” have been coursing through my mind as I’ve thought about this morning, and what Abigail might share with us.  The song is about seeing clearly, and then speaking about what one has confronted.  “Oh what did you see my blue eyed son, what did you hear, my darling young one?” each stanza begins.  Toward the end of the song, after cataloguing all that he has seen, images of struggle and pain redolent of imagery found in Isaiah or Jeremiah, the singer resolves not to hide from what he has witnessed, but to confront it forcefully.  He sings:

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.

I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.  I thought of those words as I was piecing together thoughts about the refugee crisis, and about Abigail’s recent journey to the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesbos, just off the coast of Greece.  Two years ago stories about refugees were everywhere, and we were told that the flow of refugees from Syria, Libya and many other countries was the largest displacement of human beings since World War II.  And we responded as best we could.  But the world moved on, and we’ve all been forced to address other pressing realities.

            Meanwhile, we’ve quit hearing much about the Syrian crisis, or its aftershocks.  As in the story we heard from the book of Acts, they’ve washed ashore on a Mediterranean island, and they’ve thrown themselves on the kindness of strangers.  The reception hasn’t always been as hospitable as that found in Acts 28.  I, for one, haven’t thought hard about what the refugee ban means for those who have now been shut out of the United States, or other European countries.  We give thanks for our friends the Hamous, and for their arrival here in our community before the gates were closed.  We give thanks for the friendship we’ve discovered with them.  But speaking personally, I often forget to consider all the other individuals and families like the Hamous, now stuck in limbo somewhere.  We need to think about them.  I need to think about them.  We need reminders of all those who are trying their best to stay human in an inhuman time.  We need, as the song puts it, “to walk to the depths, where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the executioner’s face is always well hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.”  It’s a lesson born of the prophets, and of Jesus, and of every manifestation of religion worth its weight in salt. 

            Somewhere along the way, Abigail Cipparone learned something of that lesson.  When I learned that she would be journeying to Lesbos to explore the implications of the refugee crisis after the US and others had begun closing their borders, I knew immediately that it was something we should all hear more about.  Abigail is well known to many of you.  She has participated in our global ministries here at the church for years now, work that helped to shape her course of study down at Yale, where she’s spent a lot of time learning about the issues surrounding refugees.  And so this morning I’m pleased to share the pulpit with Abigail, for she has seen and heard that which we all must heed.  

            (Abigail Cipparone)  

On October 13th   I embarked on a Yale journalism class trip to the refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece.  Our group consisted of Jake Halpern, a writer for the New York Times, 9 Yale students, and three refugee translators from Lesbos. We spent 10 days reporting a humanitarian crisis. We collected audio files and videos that we are now publishing as a publicity initiative to build opposition towards the institutionalized suffering we witnessed there.

Since the trip, that burden of witness weighs on my shoulders. Before we left Lesbos, Jake named this burden as a pain just to the right of the heart. Jake told our class to keep that pain alive and use it to motivate us to tell the world what we saw.

So before I begin, I’d like to first thank you for listening to the story I am about to tell. Thank you, all, for lifting a bit of the burden of witness from my shoulders. I’d also like to thank you, my church family, for supporting me since I was a child. You have shaped how I approach the world.

During our first day on Lesbos, we met a Syrian refugee named Abed.  Abed used to be an operations manager of a packaging company in Aleppo, Syria. He fled after a bomb dropped on his apartment.

Now, in Lesbos, Abed lives in an all-male overflow section of Moria refugee camp. Moria is run by the Greek government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, known as the UNHCR. The Camp is 2,000 people over capacity. They call where Abed lives “the jungle.”

That day, Abed gave us a tour of the jungle. The entrance was a concrete arch, painted with multicolored handprints. It said “Welcome to Moria” in black letters. As we approached the arch, we could see the paint was peeling, and someone had scribbled “no good” over the word Moria.

As Abed showed us the UNHCR’s food station, which consisted of a folding table on a clear spot of dirt in the center of the jungle, another refugee approached. He told us that the UNHCR gives each person in the camp a single water bottle a day. Fights over food are frequent. There is never enough for everyone.

Soon, more men surrounded our group. Abed invited us into his tent.  Abed’s tent was about half the size of the FCCOL kitchen. The tent floor was canvas, lined with 12 thin blankets – one allotted blanket for each refugee living in that tent. The 12 male residents had been randomly assigned the same tent on their first day in the camp.

When Abed led us into his tent, about 20 men crowded around the entrance. As I sat down, I could feel an electric, unsatisfied, anxious energy in the air. Soon, everyone began to talk. Our translators struggled to keep up with the Arabic, Farsi, and Congolese voices. We learned most men had lived in Moria for over a year. None had heard news of their asylum applications. A math teacher from Morocco piped up, saying no one had warm clothes for the winter, and they didn’t know of any other living options outside of their summer tents. All of the men in the tent said they were violently strip searched by the greek police if they went into town, so most stayed in their tents all day.

We left Abed’s tent and saw the 10 portapotties that were meant to serve the 1500 people living in the jungle. We walked ½ a mile to their one shower – a hose, fed through a metal fence. The men told us they’d stopped showering after they’d all gotten sick from the shower’s freezing water. We passed by a Congolese worship service. One of my classmates is from Nigeria so knew a few of their hymns and joined in. We stopped and I asked Abed if he liked the singing. He nodded, telling me they worshipped here in the camp every day. It was something beautiful.

            The next day, we awoke to refugees streaming out of Moria, some flushed and bruised, others limping. A man carried a 2-year old boy over his shoulders. Blood ran down the little boy’s face. We heard he was hit with a rock. Inside the camp a Syrian man had recently punched an Afghani elder while waiting in line to petition their asylum decisions. We heard riots similar to this one happened more than three times a day in the camp.

            Refugees on Lesbos cannot leave the island until granted asylum. With asylum applications forever pending, and no news from the asylum offices, tensions ran high.

            Soon more than 400 Afghanis sat outside Moria, chanting “Moria is not safe! Moria is not safe!”. At the sit in, we met an eight months pregnant woman named Zahra, who told us she and her three children were going to sleep outside of the camp that night rather than return to Moria. As her three-year-old clung to her skirt, Zahra said that if the situation in Moria didn’t improve, she would walk into the sea and drown.

            That morning we, Jake and his 9 students, heard that the entire Afghani community in Moria was marching to the city square of Lesbos in protest of the camp’s conditions. We found them stopped in the middle of the road, huddled between two armored police vehicles and a police riot line. We approached the riot line, waving to the dozen or so refugees we knew in the crowd, who were now detained by the greek police. A murmur rippled across the group as our friends recognized Jake.“The New York Times reporter is here” they said in Farsi. A dozen or so afghani men approached the police riot line –a scuffle – a clashing of shields on t-shirts, and the riot line broke. Soon a wave of people trotted past us. They held cardboard signs saying “Moria no good” and “Moria is not safe”.

            That night, between souvenir stands filled with devils eye jewelry and Grecian laurels, a few feet from bewildered honeymooners and tourist families, 60 mothers tucked in 240 children. Seventy men huddled together, worrying.

As I speak, in this beautiful church in Old Lyme, the situation in Greece remains bleak. But amidst the sorrow, there is still hope. I’ve stayed in touch with Abed the Syrian man from the jungle. He’s sick right now, and it’s getting colder. But Abed is a great Arabic teacher, and Jake, my professor, sent him a sleeping bag the other day. The math teacher from Morocco we met in Abed’s tent just received asylum.  Zahra, the pregnant woman from the sit-in, is still living in the city square on Lesbos, with 150 or so other Afghanis. Lesbos isn’t ignoring the refugees’ protests. The mayor called a citywide strike a few weeks ago to protest the conditions in Moria, and the Greek government recently sat down with officials in Lesbos to figure out a plan on bringing refugees to Athens. UNHCR has failed to give refugees in Lesbos proper winter clothing, enough food, running water, or heat, let alone electricity. Luckily, local nonprofits on the island work to fill the gaps. Niko Santorini’s restaurant feeds a different family from Moria every night. The one happy family refugee community center, run by a former investment banker, funds refugee led projects. Now the center has a gym, craft center, school, pharmacy, and community garden. They serve one hot meal a day, and recently ran a winter coat distribution.

            This church also gives me hope. Your eagerness to help those you’ve never met, people from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different experiences than you, inspires me. Your support of artists in Haiti, your relationship with the communities of Beit Sahour and Green Grass gives me hope.  It renews my faith in the Christian welcome, in that radical love, that we as disciples of Christ, must always show. Thank you.

(Concluding Thoughts: Steve)

I’m drawn to the words of Abigail’s teacher: that we must feel a pain just a little to the right of our hearts.  I can think of few better ways to sum up the way of Jesus than that – a pain just a little to the right of our hearts.  Preachers are charged with proclaiming the good news, but sometimes that good news has to do with confronting that pain to the right of our hearts.  We proclaim such things not because we revel in the darkness or ambiguity of the world, but because of an assurance, born from the gospel story, born from encountering Jesus, that God has not given up on human beings, even if the rest of the world seems to have done so.  It’s born from the conviction that God has drawn close to the world, that God continues to draw close to the world, and that God dwells first and foremost within spaces such as the Moria refugee camp, which is one more Golgotha in the world, one more site of crucifixion.  The gospel we proclaim insists that God dwells even there, silently luring each and every one of us into a tenderness of heart.  Preachers and poets and all people of faith are called to tell and think it and speak it and breathe it, as Abigail has demonstrated.  To do so is good news, if only because it returns us to the barest and most fundamental thing we hold to be true, that each and every human life possesses infinite value.  It’s hard to believe that in the furnace of the world.  But we must, as the singer says, “walk to the depths, where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.”  We must do so in order that our hearts may be pierced, and that we may not forget those lost souls, which is a way of proclaiming good news.



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