By William Bole
December 14, 2015 — On the morning of August 6, 1945, a 37-year-old Jesuit priest serving in Japan thought little of the American B-29 bomber that appeared in the sky above the city of Nagatsuka. He had seen squadrons of planes flying there many times before. But then, about 20 minutes later, Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, also saw a blinding light through a window in the Jesuit residence. He opened the front door and felt a “formidable explosion similar to the blast of a hurricane,” the Spanish priest recalled many years later. Doors, windows and walls began falling down around him.
Fr. Arrupe was witnessing the dropping of the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, roughly four miles from the Jesuit community that he led at the time.
A former medical student, Fr. Arrupe rallied members of his community to carry 150 Japanese victims of Hiroshima into the Jesuit residence. The priests nursed their wounds and fed them fish, meat and eggs to help restore their immune systems. Amazingly, only one of the 150 cared for in the community died of wounds from the attack.
Fr. Arrupe, soon after arriving in Japan.
“It was a life-changing experience for him,” says Father Thomas Smolich, SJ, international director of the Rome-based Jesuit Refugee Service, or JRS. Fr. Smolich says Fr. Arrupe’s experience in Hiroshima jelled into a conviction that ministry to the suffering and oppressed must be at the core of Christian witness.
More than three decades later, in 1979, Fr. Arrupe was serving as the Superior General of the Society of Jesus when refugees began flooding out of Vietnam on rickety boats and rafts. The plight of the Vietnamese “boat people” led Fr. Arrupe to call for a worldwide humanitarian response by the Jesuit order and its lay partners. Out of that campaign came, in November 1980, the founding of Jesuit Refugee Service.
In the late 1970s, Fr. Arrupe, then-Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was moved by the perilous journeys of the Vietnamese boat people. (Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific)
Today, the global agency is working in 45 countries, meeting the educational, health, social, psychological, pastoral and other needs of those forcibly displaced from their homelands. The word “accompany” is key to any description of JRS’s work.
“To accompany means to be a companion. We are companions of Jesus, so we wish to be companions of those with whom he preferred to be associated, the poor and the outcast,” says a mission statement of JRS/USA, the American arm of that organization.
Fr. Smolich, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, with refugees in Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Much has changed in the past 35 years. Civil wars and ethnic hostilities have accelerated the worldwide flows of refugees — who now spend an average of 17 years displaced and unsettled, according to figures cited by JRS.
Fr. Smolich notes that Fr. Arrupe (who died in 1991) believed JRS should always maintain a “very light, organizational structure.” The JRS leader adds plainly, “Any organization with a $50 million budget cannot have a light structure. He [Fr. Arrupe] could never have imagined how big we would become. We have evolved because the situation of the world’s refugees have evolved.” JRS now has 1,700 employees, including 68 Jesuits.
A Jesuit Refugee Service staff member meets with young refugees out for a game of soccer in Ethiopia. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Along the way, JRS has sharpened the focus on education as its most definitive way of accompanying refugees.
In a video marking the 35th anniversary of JRS, an African woman in a bright red headdress is seen typing on a desktop computer in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. With the skills she is learning from JRS teachers in that camp, “I could help in many ways in my community,” the woman says in the video produced by JRS/USA. “I really think education is the key to everything we’re doing in life.”