Freedom Highway

staple singersBy Nick Coke

I’m listening to The Staple Singers bellowing out ‘Freedom Highway’ from their legendary live performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church in 1965. It’s three days after my second visit to the Jungle in Calais. I’ve tears in my eyes and a sickness in my stomach.

Pop staples introduces the song:

“A few days ago, the freedom marchers marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I know some of you know about that. That was in March of nineteen hundred and sixty-five. And from that march, word was revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway’, and we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers.”

I’m holding the original record sleeve in my hand. It’s a thrill to know that the person whose hands pressed this vinyl half a century ago and the first owner of this particular LP would have lived through the Martin Luther King led march that made history. The concert was recorded only 3 months after that event.

The guitar kicks in, then the drums, hand-clapping and finally the vocals.

March for freedom’s highway
March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
There is just one thing I can’t understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.
Yes I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.

portaloosI’m back in the Jungle, standing in the winter rain and mud. There’s a hopelessness hanging in the air I hadn’t sensed the last time. There are rumours of a government demolition, of police brutality, of vigilante gangs beating up migrants whilst the authorities turn a blind eye. I’m told by a Syrian refugee about the orphans living in the camp with no-where to turn. I’m struggling to see the freedom highway.

Pop Staples knew when he composed his song that he was writing about an historic moment. Today we are making history. Future generations will look back and wonder about our response to the biggest humanitarian disaster in Europe since the Second World War. We will be judged for what we are doing and what we are not doing.

The Jungle in some ways has come to symbolise the British response. It’s the closest we’ll allow those fleeing war and poverty to get before they meet our high border fences. It’s a third of the distance than from Selma to Montgomery.

As I listen to The Staple Singers from 50 years ago, I can’t help but dedicate this song to the people I met in Calais. May you one day experience freedom – freedom from war, freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression, freedom from fear. May you find freedom – may you overcome. And Lord – help me be a freedom marcher.

My conscience compels me to action

7.png

By Nick Coke

A month ago I wrote a piece called ‘A Calais Protest’. It was written within a day or so of visiting the camp known as ‘The Jungle’ rotting on our borders. There’s always a risk in writing something in haste, whilst things are still raw – it can become a knee-jerk response. In this case, however, even with a month’s distance, I stand by every word.

The anger still smoulders in me. Every time it rains, I picture in my mind’s eye the mud and squalid conditions surrounding the crowded tents that are home to 6000 men, women and children. Whenever I hear the boiler kicking in to fire up my central heating, I remember how the night after I visited, a fire swept through the camp as people tried to keep themselves warm around a naked flame. As I’ve watched my son head out to the shops on his bike, I remember the young boy of similar age riding through the camp – it’s no place for any human being, even more so the vulnerable. Each time I go to church I’m taken back to that ram-shackled structure pieced together from random lengths of wood and plastic sheeting where Christians in the camp go to pray and worship. I’ve struggled since to sense the presence of God I found in that thin place in the comfortable worship settings that I spend my time in.

I mused in my earlier post that there comes a time when we must move beyond protest to action. In the case of Calais, avenues for action are limited by the lack of political will in France and the UK to take any responsibility. Bowing to that position, of course, is not a given – rather it is a choice that each of us makes.

I was recently convicted by Martin Luther King Jr’s comments about knowing when to take action:

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘is it popular’? But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

My conscience refuses to allow me to sit idly by and do nothing. I refuse to choose silence. So, what to do? Well, I know from experience that when ordinary people band together and organise themselves, even the gravest situations can change. Political realities can take another shape when enough creative people begin to use their prophetic imagination and look beyond the prevailing narratives to something more akin to the Kingdom of God. I’ve asked some of these prophets for their suggestions of what we can do and added a couple of my own. Take a look below and ask yourself, ‘what is my conscience compelling me to do?’

  • Go and see for yourself. Calais is a mere 26 miles from our borders – a 2 hour journey from our capital city. The first step towards action is always listening. And if you can’t go, then encourage your leaders to go – political leaders, church leaders, community leaders. I defy anyone to go and not feel challenged to action.
  • Read about it, preach about it, blog about it, talk about it and urgently pray about it. Don’t let it fade into the background as if it doesn’t exist. When we agitate and needle others it provokes greater action, public pressure and accountability around the root causes. You can join Facebook groups that keep you up to date with info. Here are some with contributions from ordinary people who are in and out of Calais all the time: Calais Migrant Solidarity Action and Calais Action And there’s one called ‘Jungle Life Calais’ that has testimonies from people living in the camp.
  • Bring it to the attention of elected politicians – talk or write to your MP or Assembly Member about it. Admitting it is a UK issue (as well as a French one) is the first step in seeing some action. More specifically call on the French and UK governments to follow basic UN conventions in meeting needs for those living in the camp. The camp currently fails on all internationally agreed standards.
  • Join the campaign calling for those in the camp, particularly children, who have family members in UK to be allowed to make asylum applications. More on that here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Calais protest

church

By Nick Coke

On Sunday I preached a sermon from the Old Testament prophet Amos. Standing before my congregation, they graciously listened as I wondered aloud how this unlettered, unqualified, shepherd from nowhere could pull off delivering such an angry howl of protest at the religious and political establishment of his time and still manage to have it remembered for millennia as part of the canon of scripture. His message has virtually no hope – a handful of verses at the very end promise a better day but for the most it’s wave after wave of finger-pointing, judgement, warning and lament. The reason it stands the test of time is that sometimes there are moments when all you can do is protest. Whilst protest does not provide the answer it certainly raises the question. Protest marks the moment of refusal to be comfortable with things as they are. It is the beginning of change but never the end. Continue reading “A Calais protest”

On Songs of Praise & Calais: No home on earth have I, No nation owns my soul.

You have to watch this episode of Songs of Praise which features the church in Calais.  It reminds us of the following:

Continue reading “On Songs of Praise & Calais: No home on earth have I, No nation owns my soul.”