The Arrupe vision in action

November 8, 2007 in General, News

Jesuit Refugee ServiceMark Raper remembers Fr Arrupe as the founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which he saw as a means by which the Jesuits could meet one of the most pressing needs of the time and would also be of immense benefit to Jesuits themselves.

Just four days before his cerebral stroke, in August 1981, I met Fr Arrupe in Manila. In that encounter the diminutive Father General was flanked by two tall members of his staff: Michael Campbell-Johnston his Secretary for Social Justice, with whom he had been working to set up Jesuit Refugee Service, and Bob Rush, his assistant for East Asia. Clearly they had briefed him for this meeting. Fr Arrupe then asked me to work for Jesuit Refugee Service in Asia. Within a few days he was rendered speechless and confined to the infirmary, while I was to spend the next 20 years attempting to put his remarkable vision into practice.

Some years later, in the mid-1980s, I went to the infirmary at the Jesuit General Curia in Rome to meet Fr Arrupe. He was aware who I was, but could not speak. The infirmarian Brother Bandera brought paper and pencil. With his left hand, Fr Arrupe shakily drew a map of India, then the droplet form of the neighbouring island. Clearly he was asking, ‘What are you doing to help the people of Sri Lanka?’ Indeed JRS was then and is still deeply engaged among the victims of the long running war in Sri Lanka. I was sure then that Fr Arrupe was then and is still doing everything in his power by praying for the refugees and for our efforts among them.

On one earlier occasion I had met Fr Arrupe and questioned his assertion that our work for the refugees would benefit the Society. I asked whether it was an appropriate motivation for our service. I misunderstood him, he insisted. His claim was simply that face-to-face contact with refugees would be a gift to Jesuits and their companions. I came to appreciate how wise his prediction had been. To become companions of the refugees is a privilege and a gift from the Lord. This was Arrupe’s vision.

While stories concerning refugees are often overwhelming and depressing, and new crises can leave us feeling powerless, face-to-face contact with refugees is inspiring. We cannot but be moved by their resilience and energy to overcome great disadvantage. Close contact with refugees energises JRS workers, motivates, and instructs them.

Deeply moved by images of Vietnamese boat people escaping their homeland, Fr Arrupe saw that the Society of Jesus was well placed to coordinate coherent international action. The immediate response he received in 1980 and early 1981 showed him that similar assistance could be extended to people then in flight from Somalia and Ethiopia, and from Cambodia and Laos. JRS was created to be flexible as new needs emerged.

Fr Arrupe established JRS to communicate the plight of refugees to the world, especially those who could assist, and to act as a ‘switchboard’ connecting needs with offers of assistance. JRS drew on the resources of Jesuit networks and on the generosity of religious congregations and lay movements. Many JRS projects now involve only a tiny contribution of Jesuits, meanwhile coordinating hundreds of volunteers, of local workers as well as international personnel.

The threefold mission of JRS, ‘to serve, accompany and defend the rights of forcibly displaced people’, was formulated in the late 1990s, However, this vision is clear in Fr Arrupe’s founding letter and in the earliest JRS initiatives. These are always pastoral, though forms of pastoral presence vary among Muslim, Buddhist and Christian people.

The history of JRS is about the lives and hopes of people we know personally. Personal knowledge constantly transforms our understanding. JRS opens doors – beyond transitory and shocking images – into the inspiring lives of people struggling to defend their rights, protect their families and give their children a future. Fr Arrupe’s inspiration has been a blessing to us all.

Mark Raper SJ was the Regional Director of JRS in Asia during the 1980s and International Director from 1990 to 2000.