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Praying with Refugees in Southern Africa: redefining our mission in life
01 March 2014

One refugee woman serves a meal from her street food stand in Pretoria, South Africa. While many refugees rely on the Jesuit Refugee Service for material assistance they often strive for self-reliance and find dignity in providing for their loved ones (Patrick Keaveny/JRS).
Johannesburg, 1 March 2014 – One morning I received a visitor to our office, a young woman refugee whom I shall call Ayan*.

I had met with Ayan before trying to get her case for assistance moving again; it had been bogged down for some time due to lack of documentation. That October morning I felt she had a further complaint and, to be honest, I didn't want to see her.

She came with her one-year-old; and when she got to my office, she simply sat down and wept. I asked another staff member, Molly, to come in so there would be another woman present. We just sat there waiting and wondering what could be wrong as Ayan cried in silence.

After about 20 minutes of this, Ayan gathered herself together and said she had to go an appointment at a JRS project office. Molly then accompanied her there.

Reflecting afterwards, Molly and I realised that Ayan had no intention of making a complaint against JRS. Perhaps she just felt so overwhelmed by the immensity of the issues she was facing and the humiliation of having to continuously ask others for help. All she needed was a safe place to let it all out.

Reflections for prayer
It was a salutary reminder that even with all the issues we face at JRS we still have power over our lives. This sense of empowerment is something many refugees can only dream of having, when they first ask for our assistance. Having to ask for help is often a humiliating experience, no matter how well intentioned the "helpers" may be.

At the beginning of the Gospel according to Mathew, Jesus sets out his missionary agenda. He sends the disciples to minister, not to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10: 5-6). We tend to forget that as a Jewish person, Jesus would have grown up with a profoundly Jewish identity and worldview. Therefore, it is hardly surprising He would have understood his mission firmly within this context.

Progressively, we see Jesus going to the edges of humanity embracing more and more people. But it is a Canaanite women who provides Jesus with his own epiphany moment. The woman comes to Him asking Him to heal her daughter who has a demon. Jesus at first ignores her, then rebukes her with a restatement of his mission as He had understood it: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15: 24). He then reacts to her insistence with the extraordinary statement: "It is not fitting to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." (15: 26). Is it too much to call this treatment of the foreigner in Jewish society racist?

The women's retort, that "even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table" (15: 28), opens Jesus' eyes. He sees her in a different light, "Great is your faith" (15: 28); indeed, He sees her as a human being. In doing so, He begins to reassess his own identity, mission and purpose. More than any other single incident in the Gospel, this one serves fundamentally to alter His mission to embrace the foreigner and indeed all people.

Today, it is the presence of the foreigner who often holds up a mirror to the foundations – true or false – upon which we have built our identities and sense of purpose. Just as the nameless women challenges Jesus to reassess His own priorities, she reminds us that the lens through which we view the world is just that, a lens. There are many other ways of seeing and being. It is an uncomfortable exchange, but one that ultimately helps us to review and redefine our own mission in life.

*Name has been changed for issues of security

David Holdcroft, JRS Southern Africa Director

Scripture for reading
Matthew 15: 21-28

Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."

But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."

He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me."

He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."

She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."

Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.