Fr. James Martin: Why I advocate for refugees

Posted on Jan 31, 2017

James Martin, S.J., with Cesaire Mukamwiza Kanjoui, a Rwandese refugee, on the porch at the Mikono Centre in Nairobi. Cesaire, an elegant, educated and dignified woman, was a nurse in Rwanda. Fleeing from violence there, she ended up in Nairobi, where she made beaded necklaces and bracelets, because she could not find a job as a nurse (photo provided by the author)


by James Martin, S.J., America the Jesuit Review | January 31, 2017

This essay originally appeared on Father James Martin’s public Facebook page.

Some people have asked me, in person and on social media, why I’ve been posting so much about migrants and refugees these days, beyond the fact that it is so much in the news. Here are several reasons:

First, because some of the actions of the new administration are so clearly antithetical to Christian values that I cannot stay silent. I’m not a political person, but I am a Christian, and I feel compelled to speak out on this issue. On all life issues, to be sure, but especially on this one, for a reason I’ll soon explain.

Second, because the Gospels are so patently, almost absurdly, clear about the Christian requirement to care for the stranger. Jesus could not possibly be any clearer. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus says that we should treat the stranger as if he were him. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” he says to those who are unwilling to do so.

This saying comes when he is speaking about how we will all be judged at the end of time. By the way, the passage is sometimes referred to as the “Judgment of Nations.” He’s not speaking simply about individuals, but, yes, about nations.

Third, because there is still so much misunderstanding about migrants and refugees. Here are just a few truths that people seem to be forgetting or ignoring: Immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are women and children. The overwhelming majority of refugees who come from “terror prone” countries are doing so because they’re fleeing terror, not promoting it. Finally, the Syrian people desperate to escape their country are in imminent danger of death.

Fourth, I want to correct some widespread misunderstandings about the Gospel. Some of the commentary from otherwise thoughtful Christians has been stunning. To me, it’s tantamount to saying, “Jesus never said that we should care for all the poor. Just people in our own family, right?”

For example, Jesus doesn’t say help the stranger only if there’s no risk to you. Or help the stranger only if it’s convenient. Or help the stranger only if he or she is the same religion that you are.

Jesus doesn’t say help the stranger only if there’s no risk to you.


Think of Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Gospel of Luke.

A Jewish man is lying by the side of the road after having been beaten on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two men—a priest and a Levite—pass him by. That is, two people from his own religious group. They are probably frightened: that road, still in existence today, was notoriously dangerous, with robbers lying in wait for travelers. So they passed by the stranger.

This is a marvelous group of Rwandese women, led by Gaudiosa Ruzage (second from right). Gauddy, with a small grant from JRS, started the "Splendid Tailoring Shop" in a slum called Riruta in Nairobi.

Finally, another man stops, a Samaritan (the opponents of the Jews at the time). At risk to himself, the man stops. He doesn’t say, “Oh, it might be dangerous.” Or maybe he does—but he helps him anyway. And he not only helps the man, he binds up his wounds and takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay.

That’s one of the points of the story: He helps him anyway. Moreover, the Jewish man finds that his salvation came from the one whom he had considered an enemy.

How could Jesus be any clearer about the need to care for the stranger?

But there’s a final reason that I feel moved to advocate for refugees: because of my love for them. From 1992 to 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, during my time with the Jesuit Refugee Service. During those two years, I came to know many refugees, from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and many other countries. Our ministry in Kenya was to help the refugees who had settled in Nairobi start small businesses to support themselves. (I speak at length about this in my book This Our Exile.)

They were, without a doubt, the most hardworking, prayerful, hopeful, joyful and honest people I’ve ever met. And they had seen so much suffering and misery. One woman had seen her entire family killed before her eyes. Another man had to make his way to Nairobi through the bush, with wild animals in pursuit. Another had her house burned down just when she was starting to eke out a living.

They had to deal with things that most of us would find unimaginable: prejudice, starvation, torture, murder, genocide. And yet they were filled with hope. And humor.

I count them, still, as among my friends.

So I feel that I know something about this issue, and when I see how they are being vilified and mistreated, I am, like Jesus often was, moved with pity. There’s no way that I could keep silent.

* James Martin, S.J., is editor at large at America and the author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.