A Personal Testimony to life in a Passionist House of Hospitality, by Martin Newell
Two years ago two of us moved to Birmingham to start our Passionist House of Hospitality. We called it Austin Smith House, after an inspirational Passionist who died a few years before. Along with John Kearns cp, six men live with us here as we try to build community in the midst of our Muslim neighbourhood. Our companions are refused asylum seekers. Because of their situation they are destitute – neither allowed to work nor claim any government benefits. For us, this is an attempt to follow Jesus who sought out the marginal and the stranger, and did not allow human rules, laws and conventions to limit his compassion. It was this love for the suffering and ‘crucified’ of His own times that led Jesus to his Cross and Passion, and we hope to keep alive His mission and His love.
Living with refugees is always an education. News comes to our dinner table of personal connections with bombs in Baghdad, fighting in Libya, drought and famine in Eritrea, of friends trying to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel from Calais. The effects of wars, climate change, and poverty come close to home, as does the real heroism and reality of people who struggle in hope to find and work for a better life. It is a daily reminder that we in Europe have been, as one of our guests has said, ‘living in a dream’ over the years. But reality is coming home.
These are the realities we bring to our personal and communal prayer and meditation on the Passion. And living in a Muslim area, the terrible conflicts in the Middle East are always closer to our home, our minds, our hearts and our prayer.
We try to see Christ in each other, in our guests. St Paul of the Cross said that he saw ‘the sign of the cross on the forehead of the poor”, so we realise it is often the crucified Christ who is among us. Many of our guests are depressed from trauma, inactivity and lack of money due to not being allowed to do paid work. They worry about friends and family back home who cannot understand how life can be hard in this land of milk and honey where the films and TV show streets paved with gold, or at least luxurious homes furnished with everything a person could ever possibly want or need.
Life in a community house comes with the usual tensions of communal living- who leaves a mess, who cleans up afterwards, and more. Standing at the foot of the cross and trying to understand its implications for us is not easy, but it is life giving and fulfilling. Standing here, we are at least well positioned to experience resurrection.
Our attempts to be in solidarity with Christ in our day lead us to other places too. Together, we have vigilled outside the Elbit military drones engine factory to the north of the city, for example. It is a way of trying to stop at least some crucifixions happening in the first place. Likewise, my participation in the ‘Christian Climate Action’ group. Another way of trying to learn to care for God’s ‘crucified earth’, which as Pope Francis has said is another of our suffering neighbours, has been to make the concrete wilderness of a garden into a composting, veg growing, (potatoes, onions and garlic) flowering, slowly-materialising haven.