Today’s war-sparked refugee crises were decades away when philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously declared “The medium is the message.” But the medium behind the vivid orange crucifix at Flourtown’s St. Miriam Parish and Friary -- life jackets discarded by Syrian war victims who’d fled across the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek island of Lesvos -- is clearly the message.

McLuhan’s signature statement pertained to the power of contemporary media such as TV, radio and computers to shape world view. For his part, St. Miriam Pastor Monsignor James St. George hopes the life jacket cross inside the church’s main entrance will increase awareness of the world’s ongoing refugee crisis -- a frantic migration that’s been called the largest displacement disaster of our time -- as he and fellow congregants observe Christianity’s annual Lenten season.

St. Miriam’s “Through the Eyes of the Refugee” will be on display through Good Friday, April 10, and joins a number of international projects that use flotation vests to highlight the world’s ever-worsening refugee crises. For example, “Project Life Jacket,” an NGO collaboration led by Switzerland’s "Voice of Thousands," is a series of on-vest drawings by artist Matthias Leutwyler that represent the pre-war lives of nine Syrian refugees. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrapped six exterior pillars at Minneapolis Institute of Art with some 2,400 life jackets. Weiwei’s “Safe Passage” originally appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus.

St. George spearheaded the St. Miriam project following an exhibit at the Vatican last year and persisted even when acquiring life jackets from various NGOs proved to be “more difficult than anticipated … and we had to hodge-podge it together because no one really had enough to let go of the ones they had.”

“It was actually Pope Francis’ call to the world last year to see all asylum seekers as human again … to slow down and fight the injustice we, as humans and governmental agencies, create often in the name of false ‘safety,’” St. George said. “For me, the cross is a paradox -- an instrument of torture and eternal life-giving symbol of hope. In our tradition, the cross is a symbol of suffering and sacrifice but also of redemption and salvation. So, what better imagery for Christians than to make a cross of death to bring life again, especially during Lent?

“The recent spate of governments rejecting asylum seekers and making refugee crossing such a hardship caused me to look more deeply at what we do here … how we welcome and whom. Our radical call-to-the-gospel welcoming of the stranger is paramount to our being as a parish. It’s how we ‘move and have our being,’ to borrow a phrase. But sometimes you need a representative ‘heart moment’ like we did last year with the ‘We are All Homeless Project’ during Lent.” 

He recognized such a “heart moment” last December when Pope Francis “hung a cross with life jackets wrapped in translucent film at a building within the Vatican.”

“Pope Francis said, ‘I decided to expose here this life jacket, crucified on this cross, to remind us that we must keep our eyes open, keep our hearts open, to remind everyone of the absolute commitment to save every human life, a moral duty that unites believers and non-believers,’” the St. Miriam pastor continued. “So, for me, I guess it isn’t just the plight of Lesvos. It’s all the places where the Lesvos’s are and are created and maintained, all because of our indifferences and selfishness.”

That said, St. George reasons his parish’s Lenten crucifix could just as easily been shaped from “homeless clothing or fishing nets from Palestine or the weeds and bulrush at the water’s edge where the bodies of two-year-old Valeria and her 25-year-old father Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez were thrown upon trying to cross the Rio Grande River last June.”

“It’s not that I used these life jackets, but the impetus to use ‘something’ visual to represent evil that should push people to look more deeply,” St. George clarified. “Sometimes an image is so powerful, it cuts through almost any noise … even our own inaction and unwillingness to act.”

St. Miriam Parish and Friary, a Franciscan, Old Catholic parish community, is located at 654 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown. The parish also operates an on-site preschool and kindergarten as well as the Angels of Assisi Pet Memorial Garden for pet burials. Additional information is available at 215-836-9800 and www.mysaintmiriam.org.

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