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Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, recently completed an eight-year tenure as international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which was founded in 1980 by the then Jesuit Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ. JRS accompanies, serves and advocates for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Prior to his work at JRS, Fr. Smolich served as the president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States in Washington, D.C. He also served as provincial of the California Province Jesuits from 1999 to 2005. He entered the Jesuits in 1974 and was ordained a priest in 1986.

Fr. Smolich in Chad in 2018 (JRS)

1. What was one day in your work at JRS when you thought to yourself, “this is why we do this work”?

Several years ago, I was visiting our work in eastern Chad with refugees from Darfur, Sudan. We visited some amazing projects, from teacher training to education to economic development. Women, in particular, were involved as teachers, students and leaders. Very proud of what we were doing there in a desert the size of Nebraska.

Toward the end of the day, we had a general meeting with several community leaders. They had but one request: “Help us get resettled. There is no future for us in this desert.” I heard the request and paused and understood what was being asked. “That, JRS cannot do,” I told the speaker. “I am sorry. I cannot promise you that.” I said we would continue to walk with the community as closely as we could.

JRS accompanies people, doing what we can, acknowledging our limits and our graces. We do our work because we can make a difference, and sometimes, listening is the difference we can make.

2. What are one or two challenges refugees face that most people don’t realize?

Many people imagine that forcibly displaced people leave home for five or six months and then return. For most this is not true, and if you spend five years forcibly displaced from home, you will likely spend more than 20. When you flee for reasons of violence or corruption, it is often impossible to return, and climate change is aggravating this reality.

If I could change one thing for refugees, it would be a work permit. More often than not, people flee home and cannot legally work in a new country. Too often we imagine our world as a pie, and refugees will take our piece; rather, our forcibly displaced sisters and brothers make the pie bigger and there is more for all. The dignity that comes with putting food on the table and sending your children to school is tangible and beyond value.

Fr. Smolich with a class of JRS students in South Sudan (JRS)

3. What’s one quote that inspired you in this work, and why?

I led JRS for eight years in Rome, so my work was more about empowering our staff to “do the necessary” (a phrase I picked up from my travels) than working in the field.

Max DePree ran the family business of Herman Miller office furniture, and when he retired, he worked with Fuller Theological Seminary and wrote a number of books on leadership. Each year I would begin our planning retreat with a quote from Max.

The quote with me as I answer these questions was from Year 2: “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” That just captures it: We all have a role to play in building the reign of God and the next step is always worth taking!

4. If you could go back in time and say anything to yourself in the Jesuit novitiate, what would you say?

Two things:

  • Do the Examen! It took me a long time to figure out how to make it a regular part of my day.
  • Accept the invitation! God awaits beyond our fears.
Fr. Smolich during a Mass in Colombia (JRS)

5. What fills you with hope?

The global reality of forced displacement is pretty grim these days. … And yet, I find our work hopeful because those we accompany and serve have hope. They are clear that but for the grace of God, they would not be alive. Grace is at work, always, and it propels the bigger picture that Martin Luther King expressed: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.


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