40 years of accompaniment: Fr James Martin SJ

18 February 2020

James Martin SJ in 1994 at the JRS Mikono Centre in Nairobi, which sells refugee-made handicrafts and continues today.  He is with Cesaire Mukamwiza Kanjoui, who made beaded necklaces and bracelets.

A well-known author and editoratlarge of America MediaJames Martin SJ worked for JRS as a young Jesuit in Nairobi, KenyaFr Martin chronicled his experience in This is Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with Refugees of East Africa 

Describe your life and what was happening when you first become involved with JRS.

In 1992, I was a Jesuit scholastic (a young Jesuit preparing for ordination) and discerning what I might do for my “regency” assignment. That’s the period when a Jesuit works full-time for a few years in a Jesuit ministry. I was hugely inspired by the work that JRS was doing, having read about it many times as a novice. But I was also interested in working at a Nativity school, serving young people in poor neighbourhoods. I told my Jesuit superior that I was open to both. He said, on the spot, “Then you’ll work with JRS. There is no substitute for working with those in need overseas. Call them up and see where they need you the most.” That’s how I ended up spending two years at JRS Eastern Africa in Nairobi. 

Where are you in your life today?

I’m a Jesuit priest and editoratlarge at America Media, where I spend most of my time writing books on spirituality.  Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book on my experiences with the refugees in Eastern Africa, called This Our Exile.   

What difference did JRS make in your life?

It made all the difference, but it’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s best to say that I fell in love with the refugees with whom I worked, and that they helped to enlarge my heart and my capacity for compassion. Before my time with JRS, “refugees” seemed a kind of nameless, faceless mass of people. I felt sorry for them, of course, but they seemed more an abstract category of people. The reality is the opposite: They are individuals, men and women and children with stories. They’re not “refugees” as much as they are people like “Edith” and “Samuel” and “Gauddy” and “Sarah” and “Augustino.” I think that’s how God sees us: as beloved individuals, each with our own story, each of us precious in God’s eyes. 

JRS talks about walking with the people we serve and accompanying them on their journeys. What does accompaniment mean to you? 

For me, accompaniment means coming to know people as individuals, rather than as a group or a category. Of course, it’s important for us to advocate for refugees, migrants, and internally displaced people as a group, particularly today.  But real accompaniment means spending time with them, the way Jesus spent time with people. If you think about it, many of the most marginalized people in the Gospels–the Roman centurion, the Woman at the Well, and so many of the sick–are people with whom Jesus engages in conversation. He meets the person in front of him, gets to know them, and enters into their lives in a very real way.  This is part of accompaniment.   

Read more testimonies of our partners and companions here