Instead of a sermon: a meditation on a Psalm (Ps. 69)
Congregation: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
We remember today the people who have had to leave their homelands because they can no longer lead a decent life there. Many of them hoped to find refuge and a new home in Europe. They made use of everything they had and risked their health and their lives. Too many have died. This tragedy and this scandal have many aspects. There are the stories of the victims and their families. It is not just a question of a few individuals, however, but of unimaginably huge numbers of people. Their deaths were not inevitable, but in many cases were the result of deliberate action or the failure to render assistance. And finally, it’s about what these deaths mean to us, and how we avoid becoming mere spectators.
Congregation: I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
More than 18,500 people have died at the borders of Europe since 1993. Their deaths have been documented in press reports, and in reports from governmental and non-government agencies. What is not known is the number of deaths that have not been recorded or counted, the number of people who have disappeared without their names being known. They all sought a life in security and dignity, a life without fear and hunger. The doors of Europe remain closed to them forever.
Congregation: I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
Most of the victims drowned in the sea or in the rivers that mark the borders. Others suffocated in containers, died of thirst in the deserts, were shredded to pieces by the mines on the border between Greece and Turkey, froze to death in the mountains, died in the undercarriages of planes, trains or trucks, or were shot by border guards. In the first half of 2011 more than 2,000 people died attempting to reach Europe from Libya and Tunisia.
Congregation: My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
In August 2009, a boat that had lost power with 82 men, women and children aboard was drifting on the seas between the African coast and Sicily. Those on board came from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Nigeria. For 23 days, the refugees could only watch as ships passed by. Not one of them stopped. Not one of them offered help. No one informed rescue workers. One after another, the people on board died of thirst and starvation. Some threw themselves into the water. When finally a ship came to rescue them, 77 had died. Only five survived the tragedy.
Congregation: But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me, with your faithful help.
Let us listen to the voice of a grandfather from Eritrea, who lost his 22-year-old granddaughter in the tragedy: The meaning of human existence ends where Europe’s external borders and the closed-door policies of the European Union begin. The death of our children is an execution caused by Europe’s closed-door policies. My granddaughter died a very painful death, although she could have been saved. Just 22 years old, her life was taken away from her. It is not only the horrific death of my granddaughter that moves and hurts me. I grieve for every single victim who has suffered such a painful death. Every morning, noon and evening I remember the victims and bid them farewell. And still I dream that the young people will return home one day. For our family, it means we cling on to hope. That’s what hurts the most. These tragedies have to do with the fear and uncertainty of many Europeans about those who look different.
Congregation: Rescue me from sinking in the mire.
The grandfather continues: How can it be that for 23 days our children could be seen from several ships and still not be saved? This is just callous. I don’t think many people in Europe these days possess civic courage, honour or morality. But when I think of the fishing and marine personnel who sailed past the people who were screaming for help and yet did nothing, because they feared for their own livelihoods, I have absolutely no sympathy … This new dimension of indifference towards people is more dangerous than hate. If you hate someone, then at least you recognize they exist, that they are a thorn in your side. If you are completely indifferent to someone, then you don’t even recognize they exist. This is dangerous, and indeed for all the continents of the world.
Congregation: Let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
The grandfather from Eritrea offers us some advice: Therefore, we need to be clear, we who believe in human rights and humanity – whether we are Africans, Americans, Asians, Australians or Europeans – that each of us has the obligation to make known to the world the full extent of the tragedies in the Mediterranean. Those who do not condemn this act today, will not be able to look forward to a Europe fit for human beings tomorrow. The people who in the name of Europe are willing to accept the deaths of so many people, are those who betray Europe.
Congregation: Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.
At the end, the man from Eritrea does not forget those who tried to help: I cannot overlook the positive example of some Europeans, such as the Italian lawyer and his assistant, and the German organizations, such as borderline-europe, who have continually accompanied us through these hard and painful times.
Congregation: Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress – make haste to answer me.
The fact that so many ships passed by this and other refugee boats, is not only because of the indifference of the ships’ crews. Some rescuers were taken to court and threatened with punishment because they were alleged to have illegally brought to land those who had been stranded on the sea. Even Germany and other European Union countries refuse to help. They are not prepared to accept the survivors from the ships’ crews. They are also acting in our name. We’re in the same boat as them if rescue is denied.
Congregation: Draw near to me, redeem me. O God, protect me.
And we pray to God:
Let us not give in to the temptation that we cannot achieve anything with our modest efforts. Help us to overcome our indifference. Let us do what we are able to do. We can pray. We can hold our intercessions. We can open our mouths for the dumb. We can do something to make sure that the dead are not forgotten. We can support those on the spot who are trying to help the refugees. We can work to ensure that refugees are welcomed into our churches. We can work to ensure that our governments set up admission programmes for refugees and take effective measures to rescue people stranded on the sea. O God, protect us. Amen.
(Slightly revised version of a psalm to mark the day of prayer and remembrance of those who have died at the borders of Europe on 26 November 2011, in the Ev. Holy Cross Church, Berlin Kreuzberg. The italicized text from the families of the victims was provided by Pro Asyl.)