Friday, 18 November 2011

The Englishman, the Irishman, the Scotsman and the Pakistani...

No dear friends this is not a joke. These are exactly the people who have been meeting in Santiago during the last week to discuss a couple of new projects.

Last Friday three members of the Irish Society of the Friends of St James flew into Santiago in the company of two members of the UK Confraternity of St James. They were here for three days to meet with representatives of the Pilgrims' Office and to discuss the details of a new service to welcome pilgrims to Santiago. That task is complete and next May we will launch the new service initially for a pilot period from May - October 2012 when it will be evaluated. The service will be provided by volunteers who, at least during the pilot phase, will be recruited by both organisations. They will soon announce the details of how the scheme will work and how potential volunteers can apply.

The service is simple - volunteers will be "amigos" to the arriving pilgrims. They will offer a word of welcome and congratulations to every pilgrim. That means they might need to learn some new words and phrases. However training and support will be provided. They will also be able to provide advice to English speaking pilgrims and they will be well versed in the answers to the questions which pilgrims frequently ask. They will also be able to provide information about the other organisations in Santiago who may be able to assist pilgrims in difficulty. I'll keep you posted as the service develops.
And just where exactly does the Pakistani come into this story? I hear you ask. It is simple really. As the folks from Ireland and the UK flew home Malik Gul arrived. Malik now lives and works in South West London. He runs the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network and he is a deeply committed and charismatic individual who is driven to make society a better place. The area which Malik's organisation serves has a population 10 times larger than Santiago and is one of the most ethnically diverse in London. This can lead to tensions and a lack of understanding between different parts of the community. It also means that often local services distant from the needs of a large amount of the population. Malik's organisation asks big questions..."how do doctors in the local health service understand the needs of the Asian community or the 50,000 strong Korean community?" "How do can we help social services relate better to women in the traditional Muslim  community?" "How do we help people within these communities use the services open to them when they need them most?" They also respond positively to these questions by opening communication and bringing people together. This is not simply aspirational. Huge progress has been achieved.
Malik also recognises that with unemployment on the increase there is an increasing sense of aimless boredom particularly amongst young people. That can all too often lead to greater tensions between communities with different racial and  economic backgrounds. It also fuels a great worry about how the next generation of young people find opportunities to grow and develop. We had the glimmer of an idea...could making pilgrimage help? Malik came to Santiago to explore and discuss.
A pilgrim in Monte de Gozo
His journey over two or three days was fascinating. We walked out on the Camino Frances to Monte de Gozo. We met pilgrims from many countries walking together, chatting and laughing. Each had the elation seeing the spires of the Cathedral brings. We stopped to talk to a young man and I felt Malik gasp when he said that he had left home in Belgium three months before. I asked him about his pilgrimage, had he enjoyed it? His face beamed with a radiant smile that said it all.
Manuel the manager at Monte de Gozo was the perfect host and Malik was astonished to learn that this kind of pilgrim infrastructure stretches across Spain.
Then to the Pilgrims' Office where he saw Compostelas being issued to delighted pilgrims and to the Plaza Obradoiro where the laughter of one group of pilgrims posing for a photo was drowned out by the cheers of 10 Spaniards who threw their rucksacks to the ground, kissed each other and everyone else nearby and proceeded to sing in celebration of their arrival.
Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mount of Mercy outside of Mecca
At the Museum of Pilgrimages Malik stood before a large map which traces pilgrimages throughout the world. I remember standing looking at it just like him some years ago. Before learning about the Camino I hadn't know pilgrimage routes existed in Spain. It was only when I looked at this very map did I understand that in most countries of the world and in every continent people of every race and religion make pilgrimage to their own holy places.
Pilgrims to Santiago at the Cruz de Ferro
Malik is inspired. He is off back to London to organise a pilgrimage for next year. He wants to reach out to 10 or 15 young people. Tomorrow's leaders. A group deliberately diverse. Young people from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other backgrounds walking 200 kms together; walking, sleeping, eating, praying, celebrating and commiserating together with the people of every nation who will also be walking the same Way.
Will they grow as individuals? Will they understand and tolerate each other better? Will they make lifelong friendships? Will the world be a better place because of this?

Pilgrims who have gone before know that it will be so.

1 comment:

  1. It is very good to see how this is coming together.

    Thanks John,