Art from the Wreckage: British Museum Honors Lost Refugees and Calls for Action

The British Museum’s final acquisition under the leadership of its former director, Neil MacGregor, is not a recently recovered Renaissance-era painting; nor was it discovered at an architectural site to shed light on a period of history thousands of years ago. Instead, it tells one of the most significant stories of the 21st century thus far, which continues to be written today; one which touches upon each of our own individual stories to reveal our shared narrative. While this simple, 15 inch-high piece is merely comprised of layers of chipped blue and yellow paint on unvarnished wood, behind the basic appearance of this cross is a significant story.

On October 11, 2013, 500 migrants from Eritrea and Somalia boarded a boat made of the wood this cross now represents. As in the majority of the migrant Mediterranean Sea crossings, the boat was overcrowded and not equipped for a journey of this length and nature. In the course of the trip, it capsized. Only 151 passengers survived and were rescued to the nearby Italian island of Lampedusa.

Frustrated by his inability help these migrants in a more concrete way, Francesco Tuccio, a local carpenter on the island, decided to salvage the wood from this boat that washed ashore to construct crosses from it after meeting a number of the survivors - many of whom were Eritrean Christians fleeing persecution. The crosses, says Tuccio, reflect the salvation of the migrants and stand as a symbol of hope for the future.

More than two years later, this hope for the future continues to reach Europe’s beaches and borders in unprecedented numbers within the heart of each migrant that chooses to risk their own lives, and the those of their loved ones, to rewrite their story of tragedy into one of renewed life in a new home free from the relentless threat of terrorism. As we have seen in the past year, however, these refugees and migrants aren’t always welcome.

While the debate regarding the migrant crisis continues among leaders in the European Union, the US Congress, and presidential candidates, it is more critical than ever to step back and evaluate this crisis as a defining time to reshape the story currently being told. As the media and European state borders grow more weary and taxed by the sheer numbers of people continuing to arrive, how should we align the story of the cross - indeed, the story of Jesus as the self-described stranger and born as a refugee himself - with the story of the capsized boat, and accept that these narratives are inherently tied together? What is our responsibility as American Christians and individuals within the story of Matthew 25:35 to welcome the stranger and practice radical hospitality?

The campaign We Welcome Refugees simply states that “we as the Church have a responsibility to respond...We must engage, and we must act.” While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees and the ongoing conflicts that are causing this number to grow larger each day, it is crucial that we recognize our responsibility to this crisis and our shared story within it, for we “have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage together on a global scale and change the tide on this urgent and dire issue.”

This moment in our history is, indeed, an opportunity for action. The We Welcome Refugees website lists a number of ways in which we could each contribute towards telling a better story regarding our response to the refugee crisis, beginning with prayer. There is a daily prayer guide for the season of Lent, which focuses on prayer regarding a different aspect of the crisis each day: for each country affected, for children caught in the conflict, for protection for each migrant and their families, for peace efforts, and so on. Each past prayer is posted as well.

Give: Migrants, aid workers, churches, and aid organizations are all working on the ground right now to meet migrants on the shore in Greece and welcome them as they cross borders inland by providing critical first aid, meals, blankets, clothes, and other tangible means for beginning life anew in a foreign country and to continue their journey. World Vision, World Relief, Questscope, and other international aid organizations require donations of any amount in order to continue this work of Matthew 25:35 on the ground.

In January, authors and public speakers Brene Brown, Rob Bell, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others collaborated to raise $1 million through donations of $25 or less to go directly towards refugee aid in the form of strollers, baby carriers, hygiene kits, winter clothes, and even floodlights to spot migrants close to the shore. Every penny goes towards the refugees and volunteers aiding them in their journey. And any of us can help them continue this crucial work by donating to their fundraising page.

Advocate: Migration policy won’t change in the U.S. without voters raising their voices to the Congressmen representing us. Both the Mennonite Central Committee and We Welcome Refugees have advocacy guides for campaigns, including templates for letters to Congress to remind them that welcoming migrants is an issue Americans are concerned about. There will also be a global Refugee Sunday on June 6th, which will provide churches with the opportunity to register for a day of mobilization and prayer, as well as watch a webinar, give, and explore opportunities to partner to practice radical hospitality with newly-arrived refugees in the area.

We Welcome Refugees' blog explores these ideas of the Church’s responsibility to help its neighbor through radical hospitality by asking, “How are we cultivating and offering a space where people are welcome and change can take place and life can be found? How are we considering Radical Hospitality?”

Indeed, how are we? What does radical hospitality mean to us as individuals, as a nation, and as a global community?

‘This simple yet moving object is a poignant gift to the collection. Mr Tuccio’s generosity will allow all visitors to the Museum to reflect on this significant moment in the history of Europe, a great migration which may change the way we understand our continent,” says MacGregor about the Lampedusa Cross at the British Museum. “In my time at the Museum we have acquired many wonderful objects, from the grand to the humble, but all have sought to shine a light on the needs and hopes that all human beings share. All have enabled the Museum to fulfill the purpose for which it was set up: to be a Museum of the world and for the world, now and well into the future.’

May the cross serve as a reminder to each of us that we welcome each of our neighbors in need in our shared story of humanity and grace.

-Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC

Photos courtesy of the British Museum