When Joseph and Rachel Givens contacted Mennonite Mission Network about the possibility of becoming mission workers, they came with a keen understanding of what they were not. They were not church planters. They were not pastors. They both knew, however, that they shared a strong calling to reach out to and walk alongside people living in exile in Europe.
In a recent sermon at Tabor Mennonite Church, in rural Newton, Kansas, Joseph Givens recalled some encouragement that Sharon Norton, Mission Network's co-director for Africa and Europe, gave them. She told them that, together, they would figure out the right opportunity for Joseph, Rachel and their two young sons.
"From that point, we realized this is the organization that we wanted to work with, and their values very closely align with ours," he said. "Their heart for justice and for the world really aligns with what we want to do."
At first, the family considered serving in the United Kingdom, by working with a church in a community made up predominantly of immigrants in London, England. However, after a visit in 2019, they found that acquiring the needed visas for their family would be nearly impossible, due to strict U.K. travel and immigration rules.
"We hit a brick wall," Joseph Givens said. "And so, we prayed about it."
While their trip to London hadn't been the success they were expecting, it did put the Givens in contact with Simon Jones, a Baptist minister in the city. He suggested that the family consider partnering with Maria Skobtsova House of Hospitality in Calais, France, where visas are more easily attainable.
Maria Skobtsova House is a Catholic Worker house and community that, as stated on its website, "offers sanctuary and hospitality to vulnerable refugees," with an emphasis on providing shelter for women and women with children. At the house, residents and volunteers prepare and eat meals together, share daily tasks, practice English language lessons, and join together in recreational activities.
The house is situated in a city that has a complex history with people living in exile. For over 20 years, people have travelled from various countries to gather in and around the city of Calais, which is situated on the point in mainland Europe closest to the U.K. Most of the Maria Skobtsova House residents living in exile hope to cross the English Channel into the U.K., either by raft or on vehicles that travel through the channel tunnel. Around the city, multiple formal and informal camps have been set up over the years, with law enforcement routinely tearing down campsites and abusing the people living in them, in efforts to make their living conditions so hostile that they will leave. The local city government has enacted bans on the distribution of food and water to exiled people by relief organizations.
"The message [people living in exile in Calais] are getting is 'We're not loved; we're not wanted,'" Rachel Givens said. She described how many people living in exile can be met with a sense of hopelessness when they flee violent situations, only to encounter more violence and hardship in the places where they arrive.
Maria Skobtsova House can only welcome a limited number of individuals and families at any given time, and most guests only stay a week or two before moving on in their goal of reaching the U.K. Yet, it was the community's focus on hospitality for people living in exile that resonated so strongly with the Givens and their understanding of faith and calling.
Neither Joseph nor Rachel grew up with Mennonite or Anabaptist backgrounds. "We both come from a denomination that didn't place much emphasis on service or reaching out to others," Joseph Givens said. "A lot of the emphasis was placed on evangelism."
Through their high school and college classes, however, both were introduced to Anabaptist writings and theology. "Anabaptists have a long history of trying to live out the words of Jesus when he says, 'Love your neighbor as yourself and love your enemies and take it seriously,'" Joseph Givens said. "And so, we were both drawn to that."
At the end of 2020, Maria Skobtsova House management board formally invited the family into an initial two-year volunteer term, through Mennonite Mission Network, with the possibility of a term extension. The Givens now plan to arrive in France in the spring of 2022. In the meantime, they are studying French, and working full-time jobs as well as coordinating fundraising and prayer support with the help of their Ministry Support Team (MST). An MST is a group of people that partner with a mission worker through encouragement, prayer, funding and fundraising support.
"Our primary goals will be to show the [people living in exile in Calais], that yes, you are wanted," Joseph Givens said. "Yes, you are loved. We want you, and God loves you, and God wants you. ... Not to be the White savior, not to be the ones saying, 'We're here to fix your problems,' but to be the people to come alongside them and say, 'How can we help?'"