The British Museum, located in the heart of London, is home to more than 8 million objects of international historic and social importance. However, this story begins more than 1500 miles away from London, on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
In 2013, on October 3rd, a boat containing 500 refugees sank off the coast of Lampedusa. Many had already been horrifically treated- including women who had been raped. The voyage had cost them around $3000. The refugees were from Eritrea and Somalia, leaving in search of a better and safer life in Europe. At least 359 people died that day. Of the survivors, some were Eritrean Christians.
Francesco Tuccio, a resident of the island, met some of these survivors while worshipping at his church. Tuccio is a carpenter, and had for two years, already been doing something amazing with his craft. Moved by the suffering of those who survived the crossings from Tunisia to Lampedusa, he had begun to make wooden crosses from the wreckage of boats swept up on the shore of the island.
For these particular refugees, he created crosses for each one of them, made out of wood from the wrecked boat they had been on, to “reflect their salvation and as a symbol of hope for the future”. Tuccio became well known for this, and Pope Francis carried a larger version of these crosses during a memorial service for the victims. Here, this simple and beautiful story becomes more remarkable. Have a listen to this incredibly moving radio clip, reporting on the news that the British Museum had recently acquired one of these crosses on display.
The Carpenter of Lampedusa
The BBC journalist that had originally reported on the story of Tuccio’s crosses recounted the tale on the radio and listening in was the British Museum’s curator Jill Cook. She was so moved by the story that she reached out to Tuccio and asked him to make a cross for the British Museum. As she explained, the Museum can only display objects- not photographs- so at last, there was a poignant way to mark the human story of the refugee crisis. She kept the project secret, worrying that her bosses might stop her.
Tuccio made the large cross from the driftwood of the 2013 wreck when it was posted to London.
You can see the cross now, in the British Museum, amid the hustle and bustle of a city that never stops, in a major tourist attraction where visitors flock to see the priceless artifacts of pharaohs, queens and ancient treasures. The suffering of the current refugee crisis has been given a permanent place alongside these riches, in the form of a humble cross.
While this is a beautiful and poignant story, what can we learn from it? Stories have power, and this one is no less. The beauty of it is that the reaction of the carpenter in making the crosses may not seem very logical or useful. He wasn’t able to provide any material help; he couldn’t stop the wars that were causing the refugee crisis, he couldn’t stop the human traffickers in their evil actions. He couldn’t stop the shipwrecks.
Instead, he simply turned to what he could do- carpentry. On the outside it looks like such a little action, making wooden crosses for refugees. But what he was really doing was allowing them to be more than a faceless number in the horrendous situation. He was giving them dignity. He was highlighting their true humanity. He was recognizing that they were more than ‘just’ refugees. They were real people, like himself, with hopes, dreams, fears, families, loved ones, fleeing from terrible trauma and searching for a place of safety. The crosses he was able to make and give them incorporated all of that in one tiny symbol: Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
In this little gift of his time in making the crosses, the use of his talent was multiplied more than he could have imagined. From his somewhat unknown island home, to the Pope, to London, the story of the crosses grew beyond anything anyone could have imagined. When the British Museum thanked him for his gift of the cross, Francisco Tuccio replied: “It is I who should thank you for drawing attention to the burden symbolized by this small piece of wood.”
God is not restricted by our abilities, gifts and talents. Though He has ‘no hands and feet but ours’ (St Teresa of Avila) on earth, He can still use our gifts, no matter what they are, no matter how obscure or irrelevant they may be. In situations that seem hopeless, when we are faced with a mess that seems unsolvable, when we think we have nothing to contribute or no way of resolving an insurmountable problem, simply do what you can. Don’t be put off by everything you can’t do. Don’t do nothing because you can’t fix the whole situation. Don’t do nothing because you can’t think of what to do! Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what you can do.
Doing what you can might be as diverse as cooking, writing, listening, driving, praying. Start by doing the smallest step that you can, confident in the knowledge that God can multiply your little gift into something beyond your wildest dreams.
Because of Tuccio’s simple actions on the island of Lampedusa, the cross now stands starkly for all to see in the secular world of London. A witness that though some governments, terrorist groups and bureaucracy may try to wipe out Christianity, it is still the Cross that has a power like none other. It is still the Cross that has the power to mean so much, to incorporate so much in one symbol. It is the elephant in the room of this news story that no one but the Tuccio seems to be talking about. For what happened on the Cross? Death was conquered! Life came from the midst of great suffering!
No suffering happens in vain. Christ is in this suffering, in the suffering of the refugees as well as in the response of the humble carpenter. He is with each one of us as we attempt to navigate the world of suffering that we live in and the responsibility of our own response to it.
Let us pray for all those who continue to risk their lives in fleeing for a safer place to live. Let us pray for those who have lost their lives and let us pray for their souls. Let us pray that we too will be guided on how to use our gifts to help others- no matter how insignificant they may seem and no matter how unusual or hopeless the situation feels.
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