22 February 2017
|"Hope is everywhere if you open yourself up to it."|
Rome, 22 February 2017 - Fr Ken Gavin SJ spent more than a decade of his life accompanying, serving, and advocating for refugees and the forcibly displaced. From 2003-2010 he served as the Regional Director of JRS USA and from 2011-2017 he worked at the JRS International Office as the Assistant International Director.
During his time with JRS USA, Fr Gavin travelled widely to accompany refugees and bring back their stories and needs to the country. He worked to advance advocacy outreach on international issues including increasing US State Department assistance to Colombian refugees, advocating for the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees, and flagging protection concerns of the Tamil people across Sri Lanka.
Throughout his early travels in JRS he often confronted the human tragedy of displacement but learned that even in the most desperate situations, hope always remains. This first struck him forcibly in a camp for Liberians displaced by conflict, where he met a 30-year-old man who had lived in the camp for a number of years and felt that each day his life was wasting away. With no idea whether he would ever return to his own village, he felt like his life was on a perpetual hold.
"Sitting with that man and hearing him speak, I felt that God was present with us in that moment. It showed me that we can be the presence of God for one another. Through accompaniment, we can make a difference in each other's lives," Ken said.
In 2005, Ken visited a small, isolated coastal town in Aceh, Indonesia that had been completely destroyed months before by the tsunami. The community's mosque was the only building that had been rebuilt since the devastating waters crushed the town. Everything else was just rubble. A community that once made their livelihoods from the sea, now found itself traumatized by water. One community member expressed his recognition of JRS's help, saying that most other humanitarian workers came, took notes, left in their vehicles, but never returned. "JRS workers, however, came and stayed with us," he said. Looking around at the destruction, he pointed to a tiny camping tent where JRS workers had been living while they helped the community to cope with the enormous tragedy of the tsunami.
"Our staff in Aceh recognized that for the community, beyond the humanitarian services that we offered them, JRS's presence was a source of support and hope for the people. What mattered most is that we were there." Ken noted.
While at the International Office, Ken's role focused heavily on JRS's mission, vision, and values, and ensuring that the mission was carried out in our work around the world. He led workshops on reconciliation, accompaniment, and interreligious dialogue, gave orientation courses to new staff, and served as a deputy and advisor to the International Director.
"This work has given me life over the years. Working as a facilitator in our orientation courses for new JRS team members, I had the opportunity to show people how importance their personal experiences are and how they can make a difference in the lives of refugees."
In reconciliation workshops during recent years, Ken focused on rebuilding right relationships where they had been strained or broken, for people caught in conflict, and between communities. He believes that reconciliation can deepen our sense of who we are as an organization and can be one of the unique contributions that JRS can make in the humanitarian world.
While attending a JRS reconciliation planning workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Ken met a remarkable Cambodian woman whose entire family had been victims of the Pol Pot regime. While, she had struggled for years to be reconciled and forgive the perpetrators, she came to realize both the tremendous need for reconciliation as well as the reality that it can be a life-long project. Moved by her witness to and journey towards reconciliation, Ken became more convinced than ever of the need to help communities to build bridges that connect people in hope rather than separate them from one another.
Perhaps what stands out most in Ken's work for the displaced was his sense of hope. He inspired those around him to find glimmers of hope in all aspects of their lives.
"Hope is everywhere if you open yourself up to it," he says.
Fr Ken will be moving to join a new Jesuit community in a poorer section of Brooklyn, New York where he will be engaged in pastoral work and continue to spread hope.