Kenya: Reflections on pastoral care among refugees in Kakuma
06 June 2011

The author, Gary Smith SJ, listens to a young refugee in Kakuma refugee camp. (Johannes Siebner SJ/JRS)
The pastoral world view of JRS is inclusive, independent of Catholic roots, as it was at its inception 30 years ago.

Kakuma, 6 June 2011 – We slipped into the dirt-floor tukul, five men, five women and myself. In one corner sit six wide-eyed children, listening to their elders. One of the women participants, holding her two-month old baby, leads us in an enthusiastic hymn. The leader reads from the Gospel of John in the Sudanese mother tongue. There follows quiet moments of reflection; the Gospel message is turned over in the heart of each present: What does it mean for their life? Then the Small Christian Community jumps into the discussion…

Like the Kakuma refugee camp, with all of its cultures and languages and its hopes and disappointments, the experience of the pastoral arm of JRS is one of contrasts: small group sharing and booming liturgies and participating in both the sadness and joy of many hearts. The pastor in the refugee world participates in and is part of the camp’s drama of existence.

I am standing in front of a group of new Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) counsellors. All refugees. They are a mix of nationalities, religions, languages. For most it is the first time they have met a real live Jesuit.  I have been asked to speak to them about the Jesuits and JRS. Christian, the Jesuit scholastic with me, and I talk of JRS history and the size and distance and power of its vision. The presentation begins: “Who are Jesuits?  Who are refugees? What is the connection?”

The JRS pastoral programme does its more formal work in part with the Salesian religious order since the Salesians are in charge of the pastoral care of Catholic refugees. This means assisting in the pastoral care in some of the Catholic chapels: sacraments, theological training for leaders, catechism, assistance to Small Christian Communities, individual counselling and leading Mass at the Sunday liturgies at three of the five chapels. It is consoling even as it is challenging.

Like one of those huge steam-driven piston trains, wheels whirling, St. Stephen’s chapel roared – full speed ahead – into the final liturgy of Easter Sunday. Celebrating Mass, I was swept along in the wake of the last thanksgiving hymn which was a bubbling, overflowing pot of spectacular formation-dancing children, ululating women, rhythmic hand-clapping, and an irrepressible singing congregation of several nationalities that, with each verse, increased its volume and that brand of joy which mysteriously attends the African church.

But the pastoral enterprise is bigger, more daunting. It is hands-on and it is mystical: it moves in hour-by-hour activities even as it embraces all in prayer; it includes all the psycho-social and educational efforts of JRS Kakuma; it includes all staff of all agencies and all refugees. The pastoral world view of JRS is inclusive, independent of Catholic roots, as it was at its inception 30 years ago.  At that time, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), saw the plight of the fleeing boat people refugees pouring out of post-war Vietnam and was moved to help. There would be only one distinguishing commitment. This: he bound himself and the worldwide Jesuit order to refugees whoever they are and wherever they are to accompany them, serve them and to advocate for them. The Jesuit pastoral agent moves accordingly, with a vision as big as the world and as specific as the heart of the individual in his immediate presence. 

A fellow staff member, a Kenyan, received the news that his mother had died suddenly. I swung by his office as he was making hurried preparations to return to his home village. “Want to talk?” I ask.  Yes, he would like that. With a brother human being he began the process of working through this once-in-a-lifetime grief.