Mercy Craving Realisation by Lynda Dearlove rsm
Imagine bedding down every night sheltered from the wind and rain only by a ragged make-shift tent. Imagine having to sleep in groups of six in that tent, huddled together out of fear of being sexually assaulted during the night. Imagine, upon waking, having to use the same few filthy toilets that are shared by thousands of others. Imagine this magnified by circumstances such as menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, the responsibility for children. Imagine, then, having to queue hours for food to ease your hunger. Imagine, if you can, living with the constant fear of violence, whether from the authorities who wish you were not here, or from the prostitution rings and smuggling gangs which are becoming more prevalent with every passing day. Imagine, finally, having to live this life whilst still dealing with the almost unspeakable horrors that you experienced on your journey to get here.
Still taken from 'Emergency operation in the "jungle"', six minute video report by Secours Catholique-Caritas France, partners with CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network), the social action arm of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Sr Lynda is a Trustee of CSAN
For many of the between 200 and 400 women at any one time living in ‘the Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, they need not imagine, for this is their reality. Sexual abuse and violence are used as strategies to deprive women and girls of their civil rights. During their dangerous journeys, many women and young girls are exposed to sexual violence, rape, prostitution and trafficking. Women and girls are being forced into sex in exchange for food and housing.
Yet, for all of the media attention these past few months on the refugees living in Calais, these women have been largely absent. We have become used to the images of the many young men who live in the camp, and who themselves have experienced traumas that we can barely comprehend, but the coverage has overlooked the very particular experiences of women living in the camp, which is only 20 or so miles from British shores.
On 24 September this year, our feast of “Our Lady of Mercy” found me in ‘the Jungle’ camp as part of a Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) delegation. It coincided with the feast of Eid – so there was a sense of celebration as we waded through mud between the small encampments of makeshift tents sitting in the midst of waterlogged scrub. As we passed people, we acknowledged them often repeating back the greetings of “Eid Mubarak” and smiling in response to the proffered sweeties. Around me, I saw for myself the conditions in which these women are now being forced to exist. With space only for 80 in the Jules Ferry centre (a facility funded by the French government which, in addition to providing accommodation for 80 women and children also provides one hot meal per day, as well as some showers and toilets), most women in the camp are being left without the support which they so clearly require. Those who are unaccompanied by male family workers are huddled in small clusters either within cultural/national groups “protected” by the collective (men) or in more secluded places – such as the small encampment I saw behind the church and library!
|Church - a flimsy structure of industrial plastic|
sheeting tacked onto a wooden frame
|Interior of the Church at the "jungle" camp|
At a recent protest held by women in the camp, a sign read: 'The Jungle is not for us. The Jungle is for animals.' For the women I met and saw in Calais, life in ‘the Jungle’ is unsustainable. Without access to the most basic amenities, without the most basic support which they require, and stuck in a transitory, inhumane and dangerous existence on a patch of wasteland outside Calais, hope of a better life will soon fade.
In contrast, at the same time the previous week I was also in the midst of a memorable experience, however this time I was sitting within the sumptuously decorated Clement VIII audience hall in the Vatican awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. It was the culmination of the five day International Symposium on the Pastoral Care of the Road/Street, organised by the Pontifical Council for the Care of Migrants and Itinerant People to develop and propose to the Church a Plan of Action (6pps; PDF) in response to increasingly challenging phenomenon of women and children earning a living and/or living on the roads and the streets, and their families.
The symposium was made up of delegates from 42 countries plus 12 Catholic Institutions and religious congregations, tasked to produce the plan in the light of the Teachings of Pope Francis, the conclusions of the 8 international and continental meetings on the same reality which many of the delegates had also taken part in (I had been involved in the European conference) and their current expertise and experience.
|Delegates with Pope Francis. Sr Lynda is second last, far right||Sr Lynda meets Pope Francis|
When the side doors of the hall opened a group of elderly distinguish visitors, of high status, dressed in morning suits and tuxedos emerged in solemn procession. They had been present in the previous audience, which also included the Italian president, and were making their exit through the hall where we were waiting. Everything was choreographed exquisitely. They were distinguished looking elderly elites. They passed in silence wearing gold chains; medals and ribbons. A squad of colourfully dressed papal guards lined up in front of us to form a ceremonial guard of honour for them not us. Then they were all gone.
A few minutes later Pope Francis came in to meet us. He looked weary and why wouldn’t he after listening to some boring speech or conferring some award perhaps on the previous delegation. They are unavoidable duties of Vatican protocol. From our group of simply dressed folks there came a spontaneous applause to greet Pope Francis and immediately he lit up, smiled instead of taking his chair he came over close to where I was sitting and he happily greeted Cardinal Veglio (the head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people) who was standing nearby.
Then Francis took his seat and the cardinal gave an introduction. There was a joke, Francis gave a cheerful laugh, and then he listened seriously as our work defending the dignity of the exploited and abused children and women was explained. But it was clear he knew it already. This is a mission that is close to his heart and in the past on several occasions he made statements and has done a lot of action behind the scenes to make church, government leaders and officials wake up and challenged them to address the crisis of many millions of displaced people, migrants and refugees and put ending human trafficking on top of their political and social agenda. Within in this he has called for an end to human trafficking and exploitation of children and women who live on the street, recognising that they are the most vulnerable to human traffickers and exploitation through prostitution.
Pope Francis was well briefed and prepared, his engaged body language and non-verbal responses during the Cardinals presentation of the fruits of our labours indicated his understanding and agreement, and his address to us left with no doubts of the concern he had for women and children on the streets plus his commitment to the churches imperative to address those needs.
We knew from his words, looks and gestures that this rare and unusual meeting with us was a direct endorsement and support of our mission coming straight from the Pope himself. Getting the backing of this man of God and people with immense popularity and influence was the greatest gift for women and children whose lives are tied to the streets. His words came from the heart more than from the text. He spoke to us with appreciation of commitment 'to care for and promote the dignity of these women and children”' and encouragement to persevere in our work with 'confidence and apostolic zeal' and 'not be disheartened by the difficulties and challenges encountered'. He waved his arm, he gestured strongly and his face and voice rang with conviction and the power of love and compassion for the plight experienced by women and children earning a living and/or living on the roads and the streets:
'The often sad realities which you encounter are the result of indifference, poverty family and social violence and human trafficking. …. every child abandoned and forced to live on the streets at the mercy of criminal organizations is a cry rising up to God, who created man and woman in his own image. It is an indictment of the social system, which we have criticized for decades but we find hard to change in conformity with criteria of justice. …. Street children and women are not numbers, or “packets” to be traded; they are human beings, each with his or her own name and face, each with a God-given identity...We can never refrain from bringing to all, and especially the most vulnerable and underprivileged, the goodness and the tenderness of God our merciful Father. Mercy is the supreme act by which God comes to meet us; it is the way which opens our hearts to the hope of an everlasting love.'
He ended his address to us with the following blessing 'I entrust you and your service to Mary, Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her gaze accompany the efforts and firm purpose of those who care for street children and street women. Upon each of you I cordially invoke the Lord’s blessing.' After which we were all greeted personally.
Yes, the connections between the two events are very obvious in terms of the plight of the most vulnerable of women and children. But perhaps more so for us as Sisters of Mercy as we move between the year of Consecrated life and the Holy Year of Mercy, the Mercy link between these two events is more notable. To explore this further I need to turn to Catherine McAuley herself...
 In his address to the members of the General Assembly of United Nations on 25 September 2015 Pope Francis said
'Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labour, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime. Such is the magnitude of these situations and their toll in innocent lives, that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences. We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges.'
Download this complete article in PDF format below
Messages to: Lynda Dearlove rsm MBE
Download below the 2 Reflection Services accompanying Sr Lynda's article
Suggested Music Tracks for the Prayer Services
Prayer Service 1
'Mercy is Bold' by Helen Kearins rsm.
Contact Sr Helen if you are interested in purchasing this album.
Prayer Service 2
' Women Speak Justice' by Helen Kearins rsm
Listen to San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble sing it here
Sr Lynda joined the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy and took her final vows in 1989. She has always been dedicated to serving women involved in street based prostitution and victims of trafficking and managed the Dellow Day Centre in East London before founding Women@theWell in 2006. As well as working as the Director of Women@theWell, Sr Lynda is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network) and of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisation’s (NAWO) and through them links on behalf of the women of England with the European Women’s Lobby. She is an active member of WNC’s (Women’s National Commission) and sits on the Violence Against Women Working Group, their International Advisory Group and the Olympics Working Group.
Sr Lynda was awarded an MBE in the 2011 New Years Honours List in recognition of over 20 years work on behalf of vulnerable and disadvantaged women