Refugees and Influence

Sarah Teather the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the UK, spoke very powerfully about her work and her life to Clare Balding on BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday (29th OCtober).  Discussing how JRS operates in fifty countries, she explained how working in the Rome office and visiting Uganda, South Sudan and Lebanon had led her to become the director of JRS in the UK.  In Britain, their mission is to accompany destitute refugees in Britain, i.e. those who cannot work and are not entitled to benefits and those who are detained in immigration detention.  Reflecting on this experience of accompanying them in the UK, Sarah spoke about how it had changed her, after her previous career as a politician. “I find some of the people we work with utterly inspiring, their generosity, when they have nothing, is utterly remarkable.”

This generosity was brought home when Sarah told a memorable story about her predecessor's funeral.  Louise Zanre, former director of JRS, died in 2016, and many of the refugees wanted to be at her funeral.  As they were destitute, JRS was able to give them £5 allowance to cover the travel costs to and from the funeral at Farm St Church. However, after mass, they discovered that many of the notes had been returned in the collection for JRS.  When a puzzled listener texted in to ask how they could afford to do that, Sarah explained that some of them chose just to walk back from the funeral. 

The interview also covered Sarah’s journey from being the youngest MP elected to parliament in 2003, to her new job. She explained how it was during making the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius that she made the decision to leave that form of politics. “I made the retreat whilst I was an MP in summer recess and as I got nearer the retreat I realised I needed to make a decision and this was a good way to do it.”

Sarah has also been included on the ‘Tablet 100 list’ which is a snapshot of lay Catholics who are influential in Britain in a variety of ways.  This year they have dropped the idea of a ‘Top 100’ which implied a hierarchy. Editor Brendan Walsh explained that this was produced in the year that Pope Benedict visited and then repeated in 2015, but had created lots of rows and discussion with people suggesting that it is impossible to measure influence. “This year we have done it in a slightly different way, it is a portrait to show how the Catholic genius affects national life, so we are not emphasising putting them in order”.  In spite of this, by numbering them Brendan accepts there will still be a lot of debate.  For the record – Sarah comes in at no.22!  Sarah said of the Tablet list “At JRS, we try to use any influence and networks we have to improve the lives of refugees and open up space for their voice to be heard.”

In using that influence, for the greater glory of God, JRS UK announced on the BBC an exciting new project using links that they had built with ‘Soul Sanctuary’ a visiting choir at Farm St Church.  JRS UK will be working with Soul Sanctuary to start a new refugee gospel choir, because as Sarah said: “Music is a common language across cultures and singing can be such a source of energy.”