Learning in and building up the social sector
Filipe Martins sj (POR)
Strange are the paths of life and God. After having ventured deeper into an adult faith in the Jesuit's Centre for University Chaplaincy in Lisbon, and having spent a year volunteering in Mozambique following the completion of my engineering degree, I entered the Society excited by the opportunity to help others "discover" the same God that I myself had discovered. During the training in Portugal and abroad my apostolic work was always in chaplaincy. Thus it came as no surprise that, on my return to the Province following my ordination, I was tasked with continuing my work in the sector of university chaplaincy and vocation promotion.
While in Ceuta, the Spanish city that borders Morocco, during my Tertianship, I came to know the actual faces and stories of the harsh reality of African immigration to Europe. These stories are at once so familiar, yet also so distant from our "normal" Western reality. When I returned to my country I was once again assigned to university chaplaincy. Additionally, I was made responsible, in a secondary role, for an immigrant reception centre in Oporto. Here was an opportunity to maintain contact with this new reality I had come to know. But little by little, as is often the case in the Society, the secondary role became the principal one, as the circumstances required. Today I find myself leading the coordination of the Province's social sector and I am very involved in many of its projects.
These external changes to my mission also require internal changes to my attitude. Someone once told me that we always approach social work thinking we know what's best for those facing exclusion, rather than listening to the people who are experiencing the situation themselves. Learning to be by their side and to truly listen to them, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with them rather than ahead of them, is a slow process and doesn't come naturally. In this social work I have discovered my longing to feel needed, or for people to thank me or at least acknowledge my efforts. But "to help" and "to enable" requires gratitude and discernment. An empowered person is a grateful person - not to me personally, but to life - and in this way they become builders of justice and peace. I'll say it again: The path is long and slow, requiring from me a discerned and at times pedagogical wisdom, reflecting how God treats us. Searching for this wisdom, which avoids simple solutions and even poorly discerned generosity, is another lifelong journey.
Portugal's social sector has undergone a beautiful change in recent years. Until a few years ago we were a sector made up of decent and dedicated people, but each one of us working in an isolated fashion. Since 2014 we (directors and Jesuit project leaders, parishioners and voluntary groups, etc.) have embarked on a lovely journey of communal work and training, in part inspired by developments in other Provinces. We hold a "Social Assembly" once a year, where 80 people from the various projects come together. We have already held a number of training modules in Ignatian Identity for the teams. Quite recently we also held the first "social spiritual exercises", where many had the pleasure of experiencing the Spiritual Exercises for the first time. One of the fruits of this exercise is the experience of happiness and encouragement that comes from being part of a large and universal body like the Society, working with others to build a better world. I see this in me and in the other people in the sector.
The question we often ask ourselves in the sector's coordination group is, "where are we going?" It's difficult to know with certainty, but perhaps there's no need to. We continue to trust in the Lord who calls us to the frontiers, bringing ourselves close to situations of exclusion and pain. As the saying goes, "go alone if you wish to go fast; go with others if you wish to go far". We continue to walk, accompanied by God who gave up his life, and by the many others who share our dynamic energy. In this way, all will be well.