Mercy or misericorde is a Latin word which means literally to have your heart (cor) alongside the poor (miseri), nearer to the poor, a heart that beats for the poor. This year, Pope Francis has invited people to consider the theme of “mercy”, as both an invitation to be more merciful to others and to appreciate the mercy of God towards us. One of the saints who inspires me the most is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. More than her activism as a writer, journalist and peace protester, it is her human kindness and service in the face of suffering that encourages me. In response to the destitution all around in America in the 1930s she set up soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. “Dorothy believed that doing the corporal works of mercy manifests our fidelity to the Gospel’s call to help whoever lacks the basic necessities of life: nourishment, security and compassion.” (Allaire & Broughton). She wrote: “We did not need to have quite so much destitution and misery as I saw all around and read of in the daily press… I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too.”
At JRS, we welcome people who, without leave to remain, are homeless and hungry here in London, a double trauma on top of the grief and violence they have lived through back home. The sad truth is that the refugees who come here to Wapping need us to exercise all the works of mercy. Their circumstances and vulnerability, combined with the refusal of our government to allow them the dignity of work or minimal benefits means they are dependent on churches and charities for their every need. So volunteers here provide food, we eat together then, we offer tea and coffee or they can make it just how they like it. We provide winter coats, shoes and baby clothes. Our hospitality scheme provides respite accommodation for those who are sleeping on the night bus or in hostels. We refer people to counselling or therapy and spend a lot of time listening to heartache, frustrations and depression, both here at our Day Centre and also in the detention centres where people are locked up without knowing how long they will be kept away from family or support networks. And we also visit people in hospital or help arrange funerals as chronic ill health and suffering exacerbated by poverty take their toll.
I have learned at JRS to do any and all of these things with a deep respect and consideration for each person I meet. I have seen in the actions and attitudes of my colleagues gentle love and attention for each individual who sits down to pour out their troubles and ask for help. I have never seen them demean or patronise a single soul, or convey that they are doing something charitable with their actions. They treats the refugees we support with equal regard and good heart. As one of the refugees who came back to visit said: “You at JRS treat us with respect, we who are the poorest of the poor.” That someone would describe themselves as the poorest of the poor grieves my heart, and yet, there is a truth in that for them as an asylum seeker here in the UK, especially at a time when more measures that will demean their dignity are being introduced yet again.
One of the things I love about the corporal works of mercy is that we need little language or words to do them with kindness and love. At Pentecost, we remember the disciples of Jesus who were in a room tired, isolated, full of fear. God’s Spirit brought them energy, relationship and confidence. A crowd gathered from all corners of the region miraculously heard them speaking in their own language. Acts chapter 2 says there were Parthians, Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and part of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs… This story reminds me of what happens here at JRS each Thursday at our Day Centre when the so called poorest of the poor from Eritrea, from Rwanda, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Pakistan, from Algeria, from former Soviet countries, from the Americas gather. They all speak different languages and live in fear, fear of hunger, of detention, of deportation… and yet, through the acts of mercy that cross bridges of the spirit, we find relationship, community, hospitality as well as joy, confidence and empathy. The acts of mercy as an expression of kindness and goodness need no translation. It might not be the abundant life Dorothy Day dreamt of, but there is joy, compassion and solidarity.