The Meaning of WELCOME

The ‘Welcome’ sign has stood at the entrance to our French property for as long as I can remember. “Bienvenue” means, literally, Well Come: it is good that you have come; we are pleased that you are here; your voyage has not been in vain; our door is open to you…

There must be a thousand other ways to express what ‘welcome’ means, and all of them involve the declaration of goodness. Whatever the circumstances of your journey, it has brought you here, to my home, and I for one am glad. ‘Welcome’ is a celebration of arrival.

Which is perhaps why, in the midst of a refugee crisis of unprecedented force, we find it so very hard to say a simple word of welcome to the stranger at our door. What stops us? Fear. Blame. Moral judgements we have no business making. And perhaps, too, the thought that our welcome will not be enough. After all, it’s just a word. Once we’ve spoken it, will more be asked of us? Our greatest fear is the fear of loss; of getting in too deep; of a dent in our own secure lifestyles.

In place of a thousand ways of saying ‘welcome’ our beleaguered brains offer up a thousand reasons not to. It is not good that you have come — you should have sought out help where you were. We are not pleased that you are here — your presence is a problem to us. Your voyage has been in vain — you won’t get to where you’re going and you’ll find no help here. Our door is very much closed to you — we simply haven’t got the time / resources / energy to care for you.

Few of these sentiments are ever spoken openly, but they are there, below the surface; in personal opinions and in public policies. The refugee crisis is just that, a crisis. It is a problem to us; a burden on our resources. We are so busy wishing it away that we fail to extend a hand and just say ‘welcome’.

Here in France we’ve been taken on a journey to get beyond that ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ stasis and move forward. We have been introduced to a group of around 65 young Sudanese men living in a squat on the Caen Presqu’île, around 45km from the welcome sign at the entrance to our property. Once a week a group of us — volunteers from our church and beyond — go into Caen to provide a hot meal and spend time in joyful friendship. Where we can we are meeting basic needs — not only food, but shoes and clothing, and toiletries. And we play games — Jenga is a particular favourite. The ancient scriptures suggest that “God loves a hilarious giver” and the howls of laughter that rise from a desolate warehouse on a Wednesday evening seem to indicate that both giving and receiving are hilarious.

And that, really, is the point. Nothing has had a greater impact on our small international church than this simple act of going, once a week, to spend time with these displaced young men. Every one of our volunteers has experienced joy as a result of being there. There is an atmosphere; a tone to these gatherings as deep and as moving as any church meeting I have ever been in. We are doing so little. In the face of the wider refugee tides, our small acts mean almost nothing. Even for these 65 young men, we are barely scratching the surface of their needs. And yet there is joy. Hilarity abounds. Why? Because the one thing we are doing is saying ‘Welcome’, and when you welcome the stranger, you welcome God.

There’s a song we sing sometimes as church. It says “Holy Spirit you are welcome here…”. Every time I sing it now the ‘here’ is a grimy warehouse on the no-mans-land of the Caen Presqu’île — and I am welcoming the Spirit by welcoming the children he has sent…

Mamhoud, who assures he is “Number One” for Jenga