Mission Volunteer on a Commemoration of the Tragic Drownings of 368 Refugees
by the Rev. Ronald Dauphin
As a retired pastor of the US-based United Church of Christ, it was my good fortune to arrive in Lampedusa, Italy, to begin volunteer work with Mediterranean Hope just prior to October 3, 2019. The date marks the anniversary of an important world event: a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of this small island in 2013. Lampedusa has long been a port for people migrating from the nearby continent of Africa to Europe, and the local culture is accustomed to seeing newcomers walk the streets, but the majority of visitors are tourists who come to soak up the sun on the beautiful Mediterranean beaches and enjoy the fine restaurants and nightlife of the island.
It was an immense shock when local fishermen noticed an overcrowded, sinking boat and lent heroic effort to save 155 migrants from distress, only to realize that 368 had already perished. The world took notice while the islanders grieved the tremendous loss of life. The shipwreck called attention to the need for fair and equitable practices-and opportunities for safe passage-for refugees and migrants.
I say it was my good fortune to be in Lampedusa for the anniversary of this tragedy because I was able to witness first-hand the unveiling of a memorial in the town which honors the lives of the victims as well as the dedication of an olive tree planted nearby, and other special events to commemorate the losses and celebrate the heroes and survivors. This is a community that is still healing.
Present at the memorial dedication were many who were there on that fateful night: both rescuers and survivors. Also present were family members of some of those who perished. They were there to give thanks for the thoughtful remembrance of their loved ones. The memorial itself was designed with pieces of the sunken boat rising above a spiral banner which bears the names of those who were lost. The banner contains the words “Nuovo Speranza” or New Hope which was the theme of the anniversary weekend.
Mediterranean Hope hosted a delegation of Italian Protestant leaders and others with a tour of the island that included a stop near the “hotspot” where immigrants are housed and processed, and a moment of seaside prayer and Biblical reflection at the monument known as the “Door of Europe”. We toured the local cemetery where an artist has painted images of sea creatures on the tombs of many of the shipwreck victims, and another has created crude crosses of wood salvaged from the sunken ship to mark the otherwise unidentified burial places of those lost at sea. We heard the stories of their lives, their attempted transit, and the profound grief connected with their loss for loved ones and for locals. It was a moving time of prayer at the gravesite as the lost–some named and some unknown–were remembered. We remembered that these were men, women, and children who were loved but lost in horrible circumstances. These were people who had dreams of a better life; a new hope.
Several organizations, including both Catholic and Protestant groups, worked together to honor the anniversary. We attended an ecumenical commemoration at the Sanctuary of the Virgin Mary of Porto Salvo that highlighted the hopefulness of faith and humanitarian aid and reflected the emotional weight of the tragic events in prayers, meditations and beautiful music. It was followed by a screening of several short documentaries which contained interviews with survivors and rescuers, some of whom were present. The anniversary spilled over to October 4 for a presentation of “The Abyss”, an original live show with touching drama, lighting, and music at the Sanctuary.
The events of this commemoration served as an in-depth orientation to the ongoing work in support of refugees and migrants conducted through Mediterranean Hope and an excellent introduction to this island known for both natural beauty and great tragedy.
*The author, the Rev. Ronald Dauphin, is a United Church of Christ pastor under volunteer appointment with the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Until his recent retirement, Rev. Daupin had served for many years as pastor of the Olmsted Community United Church of Christ in Olmsted Falls, Ohio.