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31 years of accompaniment, service and advocacy

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College chose to engage this complexity by hosting a consultation entitled, “The Theological, Spiritual, and Ethical Bases of JRS Work.” (Boston College)
Monday, November 14, 2011

(Washington, D.C.) November 14, 2011 — "It’s complicated!" How many times have we heard that response? It’s seems facile to the interrogator, who feels they have asked a simple question. However, the responder is usually sincere in her or his belief that the simplicity of the question belies its complexity. The same response my might be given to a question regarding the Jesuit Refugee Service mission to accompany and serve displaced people — it’s complicated. 

For what began as a heartfelt response to the plight of Vietnamese refugees ("boat people") 31 years ago today has blossomed into a worldwide organization that engages in accompaniment, direct service and advocacy. 

The evolution and growth of JRS mirrors the surge in displaced people. Thus, an organization that began as primarily a pastoral response to a particular population now finds itself an international NGO providing professional services across multiple faiths and cultures, and competing for large governmental grants to fund schools and disaster relief projects. 

While the rapid growth of JRS services to displaced people is impressive, it has left little time for JRS staff and personnel to reflect on the important questions facing a faith-based refugee organization. How does an international Catholic organization express its mission to displaced people of different faiths without proselytizing? How does the religious mission of JRS find expression in Buddhism and Islam? How does the Christian virtue of hope differ from naïve optimism in the face of increasing violence and despair? What are the limits of accompaniment? Can one be "trafficked" to a better life? The answer to each of the above — it’s complicated!

Fortunately, the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College chose to engage this complexity by hosting a consultation entitled, The Theological, Spiritual, and Ethical Bases of JRS Work. The consultation was billed as an exploration of the key theological, spiritual, ethical, and pastoral issues experienced by JRS field personnel with an eye toward how the vital mission of JRS might be rooted, even more deeply, in the Ignatian vision.

The ordering of the schedule gave primacy to the lives of the women and men at the forefront of displacement, and all of the discussions and reflections emerged from the narratives of the field personnel. It was a truly a gift to have fieldworkers from Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, South Sudan, and the Dominican Republic telling poignant stories of their interactions with refugees or the ethical dilemmas that arise in accompaniment. 

Ideally, refugees themselves would have been present to share their stories, but for obvious reasons this was not possible. Subsequently, a group of theologians from diverse academic backgrounds engaged JRS personnel in a productive dialogue about their respective narratives, examining its dimensions and probing for deeper layers of meaning and the ethical content embedded within the stories.

Anyone with experience in international relief agencies has most likely attended a conference that involved sitting in a room or auditorium listening to academics or bureaucrats propound theories that bear little relation to what is happening in the field. Other conferences host panels of field personnel that do little more than swap "war stories" from their contexts without any critical reflection or analysis regarding the underlying issues. This consultation struck just the right balance between the experience of the "front lines" and the reflections of gifted theologians, and as a result provided a template for a productive discussion on human rights and displacement. The interchange between the two groups seemed to validate the words of St. Ignatius that, "what fills and satisfies the soul consists, not in knowing much, but in our understanding the realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly (Spiritual Exercises, 2)."

The next step in the process will be written reflections and analyses by the various theologians who were present. The JRS international website has started posting the narratives of the various participants followed by an essay or theological analysis from one of the theologians. 

It is hoped in all of this that one might come to know better the plight of displaced people and to locate oneself within some level of response whether that is personal engagement or political action. Let’s hope that more of our institutions will be willing to take up the complicated questions which arise from working with the poor and marginalized. 

by Rev. Thomas P. Greene, S.J.
• Secretary for Social and International Ministries, Jesuit Conference
   The Society of Jesus in the United States

• Member of the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Board of Directors