‘Accompany, Serve, Advocate’. These three verbs represent the work and mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service. But where does faith come in? In this short and insightful reflection, Fr Tom Smolich SJ, JRS international Director in Rome, offers an answer to that central question
The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.General Congregation 32, Decree 4, n.2
This statement has provided both context and identity to Jesuit ministry for almost half a century. When considering JRS in this light, the justice part is easy: in 2020, we served over a million forcibly displaced people around the world, from emergency services to job-training, from psychosocial accompaniment to reconciliation among refugees and with host communities.
But the faith dimension is trickier. Over 70% of the people we accompany are not Christian. Jesuits and other religious make up less than 2% of our workforce, and many employees who identify themselves as Catholic are more accurately post-Christian. JRS does not proselytize, yet collaborates with agencies that unabashedly do so.
Where is faith in JRS? It is clear in our founding, the people we serve, and the way we work.
Servant of God Pedro Arrupe spent much of his Jesuit life as a missionary in Japan, and he knew the days of mass conversions were over. His founding of JRS in 1980 was not to make Vietnamese boat people Catholic, but to show that God was present even in the midst of terrible suffering. Arrupe’s prayer was not focused on spiritual insights about God, but about putting the love we have received from God into action.
In JRS’ founding document, Arrupe insisted that JRS offer a service that is human, pedagogical and spiritual. Spirituality can mean many things to many people, but Arrupe meant it as an expression of faith in God’s love and presence. JRS does its best to put this faith into practice.
JRS’s engagement with faith is also evident in the people we serve. Most humanitarian agencies avoid the faith question, “carving out” that part of people’s lives and focusing on strictly human dimensions. But faith is a core reality of so many we work with. They see the hand of God keeping them safe in a way they could not do themselves. Listen to these words from a refugee to a Jesuit working in Kakuma Camp:
Father, there is no need to be anxious. You fear because of uncertainties. We as refugees experienced these uncertainties from the moment we started running away from our countries. When we took the first step from our lands, we did not know the future. Those were dark uncertain moments. We lost everything, but God saved us, so still we are living. We do not know the future, but we know that God will care for us. Even when we die; we die with God who loves and cares for us.”
The people we serve are people of faith, and their faith helps sustain us.
If there is one word that symbolizes JRS, it is accompaniment. JRS’s primary goal has never been to fix things, but to walk with refugees, listen to them, and from that accompaniment, understand what we could do to help their voices be heard. Those we accompany have their own description of the experience. An internally-displaced Congolese woman once said to a JRS country director: other groups drive around the camp. JRS walks through it.
But why accompany? It can be more efficient to develop a program that arrives ready to go in a camp or urban community. But that is not Ignatian. Fr Miguel Elizondo SJ gave a retreat in 1969 to the Jesuits of the Central American Province. In the fourth talk, about St. Ignatius’ mystical experience at the River Cardoner, he offered this image:
The Ignatian vocational experience consists is of the Trinity present and operative in this world, in all things…Into this history of salvation comes the human par excellence, Christ, and with him all persons chosen to actively cooperate, to realize the salviﬁc plan of God… and the world is the location for the encounter with God. Love will not be principally affective or contemplative, but a love realized in works, which translates into service, which is realized in this cooperation with God.
A love expressed in deeds, which translates into service, which is realized in cooperation with God. Accompaniment is cooperation: we cooperate with God and our refugee sisters and brothers in bringing God’s plan to life.
From our roots, in those we serve, through the accompaniment we practice: Faith is a living part of JRS. The entirety of the retreat has been translated by Robert Lassalle-Klein and can be found until July 31 at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1V1No9dl-pVC6oA1E-aIHbirp-jVHGmW1/view?usp=sharing. The retreat became the foundation of the vision of the University of Central America in El Salvador, the UCA. In 1989, six Jesuits and two laywomen were murdered in the midst of civil war because the UCA accompanied people most in need.