[The following reflection was first published by the American Waldensian Society.]
Europe is confronting a political crisis. Border controls between most European countries were eliminated in 1997. Now, however, right wing political groups in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and the German state of Bavaria are demanding that intra-European border checks be reinstated to prevent non-European refugees from entering their territories. At the same time, a new populist government in Rome is attempting to seal Italy's borders to refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The following reflection about refugees and borders was written by Marco Fornerone, a recent volunteer on the rescue ship, Open Arms, and the soon-to-be installed new pastor at the Waldensian Church on the Piazza Cavour in Rome.
I left for Burriana, Spain, almost on a whim, responding to an online appeal from the captain of a ship, the Open Arms, which has been conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Some weeks before I had met the captain during a public presentation about the partnership between the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and the Spanish nonprofit organization, Proactiva Open Arms.
I was very impressed by what I heard and soon thereafter friended the captain, Riccardo Gatti, on Facebook. Then, on June 2, Riccardo posted an appeal: "Hi! Our ship, the Open Arms, is in the shipyard. We are working hard to get it back in the water as soon as possible, however, we need help. Is anyone interested in doing hard physical work for a few days? The sooner the Open Arms is seaworthy again, the sooner we can go back to rescuing people!" It felt as if that message were personally addressed to me. I soon arrived in Burriana, and spent the next four days working on the Open Arms in the Veradero shipyard. I was doing menial work, very menial work, which was what I was best equipped to do. I didn't have any experience or training in conducting search and rescue operations. I am not a doctor. I am not a nurse. I am not a sailor. But I wanted to help and I did so - on dry land, stripping old paint, repainting with new paint, tidying up the storerooms of the stern and bow, and cleaning everywhere.
During those four days, I saw a great deal of commitment among those on board. Their dedication touched me deeply. What I saw was important for me as a believer. I thought about the plaque given to the crew of the Open Arms by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy. The plaque mentions the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, who was not a religious person, did what the religious people in the parable did not do. By land or by sea, the volunteers on the Open Arms do work that I believe is at the heart of the gospel. They remind me that the Bible invites us not only to listen, but also to do.
Each of us connected in any way with the Open Arms has experienced reactions of both surprise and support from people around us. Especially in recent days, when there has been a lot of public attention on the sister rescue ship, the Aquarius, we have felt a lot of support. When we first arrived in Burriana to work on the Open Arms, there were only a few of us. Soon there were more. In all about thirty people responded to the appeal to help get the Open Arms ready to sail again, including some of the townspeople of Burriana. Among those helping, there were people who had known each other for a long time and others who had known no one before they came. Yet we all shared a profound sense of community and mutual respect. We felt deeply welcomed. Only some of the volunteers knew that I am a pastor, a bit of information that would have aroused interest, but perhaps also some suspicion in people who were not familiar with Italian Protestantism. Certainly, my profile as a Protestant pastor made my application one of the more unusual that Proactiva Open Arms has received.
I returned home with a deep sense of hope and fulfillment. My experience with the Open Arms, as brief as it was, has given me a desire to continue to do this work in some way. The sense of community we shared on the Open Arms is like that which we have in our churches. To go and serve where there is need, actually to be in places of need and not only be there in thoughts or words - that is what our faith is about. We who worked on that boat had been given an opportunity to partake in an important human experience. Sure, there were risks. Yes, doing the right thing involves taking small and large risks. But, I ask myself, if there is a need for someone to take risks, who should do it if not a Christian? Who, if not a pastor?
Indeed, working on the Open Arms was risky. A few days before the author volunteered on the Open Arms, three French Reformed Christians were arrested for helping refugees who had been buried in snow while attempting to cross the Alps to enter France. Pastor Marco Fornerone returned to Spain a few days after this reflection was written to continue his work of repairing and repainting the Open Arms.