A journey in faith and justice


James Conway SJ
James Conway SJ

Only as a Jesuit, could I dared have hoped to have been given so many incredible opportunities to see and experience life in all of its diversity.

I write this piece on the tenth anniversary of my ordination. Such milestones punctuate our lives. They help us to pause and look back over the paths we've trodden. I entered the Jesuit novitiate when I was 31 years old and so brought with me a fair amount of lived experience. The thread, or one of them, which connects my life 'before' and 'after' entry into the novitiate, is my keen interest in justice-related issues.

I trace my interest in social justice back to my early childhood. Perhaps that is why it moves me so much. Of course it wasn't something I was aware of at the time but I'm pretty certain that it is rooted in my father's experience of being a disabled man, struggling to bring up a young family on very limited resources. Soon after I was born, he was seriously injured in an industrial accident and was no longer able to work. As I grew up I could sense his confinement and his deep feelings of powerlessness which, at least initially, shaped his and our family's world. I also saw and heard, first hand, the discrimination which disabled people - invalids, as they were then called - and other marginalised people, faced, and saw the effect that such categories and labels have on people. Also, the challenges of accessing systems of social support which were complicated and difficult to navigate, perhaps designed to separate the 'deserving' from the 'undeserving' poor, left a deep impression on me.

It took some years for me to consciously join the dots between the sort of injustice I'd sensed in aspects of my father's situation and which impacted our family, and the other types of injustice that, once noticed, seemed to be everywhere. It took even longer to recognise that much of the injustice was built into the structures of society and that it didn't have to be that way.

This revelation was brought home to me during a year in Bangladesh when working on a couple of development programmes with OXFAM, a British non-governmental organisation. This was the most formative year of my life and absolutely transformative. I was almost 21 years of age and had never really travelled far before then, and so much of the experience felt quite raw; a sudden immersion into a world of absolute poverty which opened my eyes and guts in quite an alarming way to the suffering of women and men. Suddenly I began to understand the huge disparities in wealth and power, which feature at every level of human life - locally, nationally and internationally - and which were reinforced by global financial systems and systems of international governmental 'aid'.

During this year I came across the writings of Paolo Freire. A group of Catholic religious sisters were using his pedagogy for an adult functional literacy programme with landless farmers. It captivated me because of the way it used literacy to help a person name their lived experience, something to which they had previously been denied and helped awaken in them an awareness of the exploitative situation which they were unknowingly caught in.

I recall reading Freire's book Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the first time and feeling awakened, or rather, conscientized about how language and systems can be used to create a culture of silence. Countless other treasures were gleaned from this book which today still occupies a special place on my bookshelf.

Since joining the Society much of my ministry has been to refugees and migrants. My regency in the north-east of England involved me working for a local support network for asylum seekers and, after ordination, my parish work was largely outreach to migrants, many of whom were undocumented. Before tertianship, I worked with the JRS in London and as a chaplain to detainees in an immigration removal centre next to Heathrow Airport.

When I reflect on that period of my life, I'm immediately flooded, in my mind's eye, with the faces and smiles of the people I worked with and met. I recall some of their incredible stories, and also some of their heartache. I think of the tremendous obstacles many had to overcome and I marvel at the courage displayed by so many. I find it truly astonishing that working in the social apostolate can be so joy-filled considering the suffering one often encounters and the vulnerability that each encounter evokes.

Now, I work in Guyana with indigenous people living along the border with Brazil. Only as a Jesuit, and for me as a priest, would I dared have hoped to have been given so many incredible opportunities to see and experience life in all of its diversity. AMDG

This blog post was first publsihed on sjweb.info, the website of the Jesuit Curia in Rome