James Martin, S.J.: Four lessons from my Jesuit ministry of walking with the excluded
In 2019 the Society of Jesus announced what it called its Universal Apostolic Preferences. The phrase sounds like a bit of ecclesial jargon, but the announcement was of critical importance for Jesuits and, more broadly, Jesuit ministries. After a two-year discernment process that involved Jesuits from around the world, four “preferences” were set forth; these are to underpin every ministry in the Jesuit world. The preferences are not tasks—like starting a school or opening a parish or sending more Jesuits to a particular country—that might be impossible for some Jesuit ministries or communities. Rather they are goals for every Jesuit and every Jesuit ministry.
The four were: 1) “Showing the Way to God,” in other words, helping people encounter God, primarily through the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spirituality. 2) “Journeying with Youth,” something that comes naturally to a group of people who work in so many educational ministries, but also in parish settings. 3) “Caring for Our Common Home,” an essential focus for everyone on the planet, but also highlighted by Pope Francis in his social encyclical “Laudato Si’.” 4) “Walking with the Excluded.” I would like to focus on this final one in this essay.
Here is how the preference is described by the Jesuit Curia: “Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a ministry of reconciliation and justice.” I find that so beautiful. It is exactly what Jesus did, as he reached out to those on the margins, and it is what so many of my brothers and our colleagues in ministry have done since the founding of the Society in 1540.
Given that I have been working with L.G.B.T.Q. people as part of my Jesuit ministry in the last few years, I could easily focus on this topic. But even before I began this ministry, much of my Jesuit life was focused on walking with the excluded. This is simply part of Jesuit life and Jesuit formation.
So I would like to reflect with you on my own journey with that ministry and share some lessons from each encounter, which may help you in your own life.
Treat people as individuals, not categories. And be truly present to them.
When I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1988, I had absolutely zero experience of working with anyone who could be described as excluded. Since high school, I had worked in a variety of summer jobs, then in work-study jobs in college and then six years in finance at General Electric. But it would be a real stretch to say that I had ministered to anyone who could be considered excluded, rejected, ignored or who had had their dignity violated, at least as far as I knew.
One summer during college I worked on an assembly line in a factory with some people who were not well off, and even poor, but I was also 18 and more interested in filling my bank account than paying attention to their plight. When I studied finance at the Wharton School of Business, the poor and poverty were abstractions, and the goal was to get a high-paying job, not to end poverty. And later at GE, we certainly weren’t working with anyone who was materially poor. Nor were we encouraged to think about this population. At least I wasn’t.
I had no direct contact with anyone who was poor, nor did I really seek it out. That changed completely when I became a Jesuit at age 27.
I knew, in a sort of vague way, about Jesus’ commands to help the poor, and I gave money to various charities and to the collection plate during Sunday Mass, and I certainly didn’t want people to be poor, but other than giving a few dollars to men and women who were homeless on the street, I had no direct contact with anyone who was poor. Nor did I really seek it out.
That changed completely when I became a Jesuit at age 27. From almost the very first day of the novitiate, we were asked to start thinking about where we wanted to minister, with the understanding that that ministry would be with those who were materially poor or in some way struggling.
In fact, when I was asked about my first assignment, I told my novice director that the last thing I wanted to do was to work in a hospital. The sights and sounds, I thought, would be too much for me. So my novice director said, “Well, that’s where you’ll go then.” It was a Jesuit approach called agere contra, meaning to “work against.” In this case it meant actively working against that barrier and freeing oneself up from anything that would keep you from being a more effective minister.
So my very first assignment was working several days a week at Youville Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Cambridge, Mass., run by the Grey Nuns. It was and still is a place for people with “chronic diseases,” and at the time that meant people with serious physical illnesses, and often brain injuries, in addition to other illnesses. Some of the patients had been there for years.
I found the work unbelievably difficult: I had never worked in a hospital setting, and I found the sights and smells hard to deal with. And the physical state of the patients made me very sad. My work was simple: working with the pastoral care team as a chaplain. And I learned my first lesson about walking with the excluded early on.
One woman in the hospital was named Rita. She had been in her hospital room for years, decades if I am not mistaken. One of the hospital chaplains, named Ernie, told me to remember that when you were walking into Rita’s hospital room you were essentially walking into her home. And indeed her room had a bureau and chairs and framed family photos on the walls. She was there for a debilitating illness and was bedridden and very weak with slurred speech.
On my first visit I hardly knew what to do. Rita of course had seen her share of hospital chaplains come and go, so she started to put me at ease by talking about her brother who was a Jesuit. “It’s a great order,” she would always say in her chowder-thick Boston accent. But I didn’t know her brother—I had just entered after all, so I didn’t know any Jesuits outside the few who lived in the novitiate—so I somewhat forcibly steered the conversation to other topics. Basically, God. I thought a hospital chaplain should talk about God, suffering, prayer. But that conversation didn’t seem to go anywhere, and my time with Rita was awkward at best.
That week I talked to Ernie, the head of the hospital chaplains, and shared with him my problem. Shouldn’t a hospital chaplain talk to a hospital patient about God? Not necessarily, he said. Ernie helped me to see a few things. First, there was not much I could do for Rita if I didn’t get to know her. Let her talk about her brother if she wants. Why not? Second, since I wasn’t a doctor (and even they couldn’t cure her), my ministry was mainly what he called a “ministry of presence.” Finally, you need to treat her as an individual, he said, and not simply as a generic hospital patient and assume that you know what she wants because of placing her in that category.
People aren’t categories, much less stereotypes; they are individuals.
That last lesson made an impact on me. She was not “a hospital patient,” she was Rita. It was something I would take with me for the rest of my Jesuit life. People aren’t categories, much less stereotypes; they are individuals. Sometimes there are many commonalities: for example among the sick, the poor, homeless people, refugees, L.G.B.T.Q. people. But it’s more important to see “the excluded” as individuals. That may be why today there is a move not to say “the homeless” but “people experiencing homelessness.” To move away from seeing them as some nameless, faceless, homogenous group. They are individuals.
So the next time I visited Rita, thinking about what Ernie said, I just let her talk about her brother Charlie. She had some great stories about Jesuits in the “old days,” as she called them, and they were interesting. I learned a lot about my own religious order from her. Sometimes we talked about God, but not often. Besides, she knew more about God than I did.
The ministry at Youville was hard, and I never got comfortable there, but learning these lessons from people like Ernie helped me to better understand what my ministry was and, more importantly, whom I was ministering among.
Treat all people like kings and queens.
My next ministry, frankly, was even harder, among the most difficult ministries I have ever been asked to do: to work with Mother Teresa’s Sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica. This was just a few months after my work at Youville.
At 27, I had never gone to any poor neighborhoods of any sorts, except maybe some less-than-nice parts of Norristown, Pa., near my house in suburban Philadelphia, which were deemed to be “dangerous.” Jamaica was certainly the first time I had seen the poverty of the developing world. So on the drive from the airport in Kingston, in the car with some Jamaican Jesuits, I was shocked and almost speechless.
Our novice director told us that we were expected to work two ministries for four months, but one of them had to be at Our Lady Queen of Peace, the hospice run by Mother Teresa’s sisters.
The sisters brought in people from the surrounding neighborhoods and collected them from their small houses. These were usually elderly people who were dying and could not afford medical care. Now for all the occasional critiques of Mother Teresa’s lack of professional care for the sick, I thought this was amazing work: The sisters would get up at dawn, pray for an hour and then begin their day, which consisted not only of visiting people in their small homes in the slums, but cleaning their homes and, if necessary, bringing them back to the hospice, and then, for those who were there, tending to them, cleaning them, cooking for them, washing their sheets, bathing them and feeding them. It was incredibly inspiring.
My work was humble: washing and bathing old men. Another novice and I did that, because the sisters felt it would be inappropriate for them to clean the men. There was also a full-time person who managed us. At first I found it revolting, but eventually I got used to it and then pretty good at it.
No matter how sick you are, how weak you are, how foul-smelling you are, how little life you have left in you, you still have dignity and can be treated with respect.
For me, the most important lesson at Our Lady Queen of Peace was that no matter how sick you are, how weak you are, how foul-smelling you are, how little life you have left in you, you still have dignity and can be treated with respect. The residents at the hospice had no money, no family, no homes, no medical care, no money, often no clothes, and the sisters treated them like kings and queens. And they did it joyfully, as if it were the most wonderful thing in the world. Which of course it was. It was a lesson not only about the value of human life but about dignity. Everyone has dignity, even those who are rejected, forgotten, marginalized; and everyone should be treated like a king or queen.
Don’t assume you know what people need.
My next lesson, which I’ll also never forget, came when I was working a few months later, in my second year as a Jesuit novice, in a homeless shelter called the St. Francis Center in downtown Boston, run by, not surprisingly, the Franciscans.
Besides preparing huge amounts of food in the kitchen, which I liked because it made me feel useful, and sitting around and talking with the men and women in the drop-in center, which was more challenging since sometimes it was hard to make conversation, I also worked in the clothing distribution center. I enjoyed that because it was physical work and I felt useful, giving out clothes. I should have remembered Ernie’s line about the ministry of presence, but I still liked feeling like I was doing something.
One day I was standing at the counter, where we took requests from the homeless men and women who were our clients. A man came up to the desk and asked for a coat. I went to the shelves and pulled out an orange, corduroy, belted, mid-thigh-length peacoat. It was pretty ugly, I have to admit. And I showed it to him and he said, “Damn, that’s ugly!” And I thought, “Well, he’s homeless so he shouldn’t be so picky.” The phrase “Beggars can’t be choosers” came into my mind.
He must have seen the look on my face, one of mild annoyance, and he said something I’ll never forget: “Would you want to wear that?”
I felt a shift in me. And I said, “No, of course not.” It was hideous. So I went back and found him a new one. Why should he have to wear something ugly? He’s a human being with feelings and wants to look nice. Why should people of means or with resources be the only ones who get to say what they’d like? Those on the margins, the rejected, the poor, the indigent, the forgotten, have the right to that kind of dignity too: a nice house, nice clothes, good food, good medical care. “Would you want to wear that?” Why shouldn’t people who are poor have nice things? Why shouldn’t they have a choice? Why shouldn’t they have agency?
Later that year, I worked at the original Nativity School, on the Lower East Side, which was in the late 1980s quite a different neighborhood than it is today. I was blown away by the amount of time the teachers spent with these middle school kids, most of whom came from poorer families, often recent and hard-working immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The staff there were, to a person, tremendously dedicated. The school would serve as a model for dozens of schools across the country today.
It was so obvious: Never assume that you know everything about someone else’s life.
I was assigned to monitor the study hall for some of the Nativity graduates. These high school students would come back to Nativity from nearby schools and do their homework. And my first thought was not an unkind one, but an ignorant one: Wouldn’t it be easier for them to study at home? And Jack Podsiadlo, the kind Jesuit president of the school, said, “Well, you know their houses are very small, sometimes just one or two rooms, and very noisy, with lots going on. It’s hard to concentrate.”
It was a small thing and one that really helped me because it was so obvious: Never assume that you know everything about someone else’s life.
After I took my First Vows, I was sent to philosophy studies at Loyola University Chicago, where I again worked with two groups who could be considered excluded: First, members of street gangs in the old housing projects in Chicago, many now demolished, and, in the next year, homeless men and women looking for jobs at a local community center.
One night I brought some of the street-gang members to our Jesuit community for dinner. I was worried about how the night would go, not because I was worried about the Jesuits being unwelcoming, but I thought that somehow the gang members would feel uncomfortable. As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry, since they had a great time. But one thing shocked me.
We were driving up in the car of Bill Tomes, the man who had founded the gang ministry with which the Jesuit scholastics worked: the Brothers and Sisters of Love. And one of the young men, who had spent his whole life in Chicago said, “I’ve never been this far north,” after we had driven just a few miles outside of the housing project in which he lived. It was another example, as I learned in Nativity, of not assuming that you know their lives.
Don’t assume that you know everything about someone else’s life.
The longest sustained time I spent with people on the margins was in East Africa. My time in Kenya, as a Jesuit regent, was with the Jesuit Refugee Service, helping refugees from all over East Africa who had settled in the slums of Nairobi start small businesses, to help support themselves and their families. In time we started a little shop, still in business, called the Mikono Centre. I learned a great deal from the refugees about persistence, hope, faith, hard work and humor.
But perhaps the most vivid experience came on one of my first days and, in a sense, it was a reification or maybe even culmination of the lesson that you should never assume that you know someone’s life, and certainly never just dump them into a category or stereotype.
At the beginning of my time, I worked at a U.N. intake center in Nairobi, staffed by J.R.S., which admittedly was a strange arrangement. And I was asked to interview refugees, to help “process” them and help them apply for their official U.N. papers.
The very first person I saw was a tall man from Somalia. This was in 1992, right after the war in Somalia, so there were many Somali refugees who were coming into the country and then making their way to Nairobi. This man looked like many East African refugees: tired, disheveled, dressed in old clothes. And I think even then I thought: “Oh, a refugee,” not “Oh, he’s a human being with a distinct background.” I thought, “Well, he’s probably used to this kind of life: on the go, a nomad, maybe some sort of cattle farmer, so he's probably not unused to migrating and living from the land, and so on.”
So I said, in my poor Swahili, “What language would you like to speak in?”
He said in perfect English, “English is fine.” Then he paused. “So is Swahili, Italian, French and Latin.” He was a philosophy professor at the University of Mogadishu who had received his Ph.D. in Italy. In short, he was more educated than I was.
We need to treat people with dignity. And we cannot see them just as categories. This means listening.
For me that just summed up so much that I had learned. We don’t know people’s lives. We need to treat them with dignity. And we cannot see them just as categories. All this means listening. And this is what I’ve tried to do in my ministry with L.G.B.T.Q. people, especially L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics. All the ministries that I did as a Jesuit in formation have helped me to understand my ministry with L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics. Yes, their lives are different from East African refugees, from street-gang members, from people experiencing homelessness, from the sick and dying in Jamaica, and people with serious illnesses, though there are L.G.B.T.Q. people among all those groups. But the core lesson remains true across all groups and individuals: Love people as they are, not as how we want them to be. Because our goal is not just to live out “Walking with the Excluded” as a Universal Apostolic Preference of the Society of Jesus. Our goal is about something deeper: following Jesus Christ.
We see these patterns time and time again in Jesus’ public ministry. Whenever Jesus meets someone who is excluded, whether it is a Roman centurion, a person suffering from leprosy, a Samaritan woman looking for water, a hated tax collector, a demon-possessed man or anyone who has been ignored, rejected or cast out, we see Jesus listening to them, asking them questions, encountering them and treating them as individuals, not as categories or stereotypes, with their own hopes and dreams and griefs and anxieties.
So what are we called to do? In the words of the Society of Jesus, to “walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” In Jesus’ words, “love them.” Soon we realize that those on the margins or the peripheries are really where we should be, and that becomes our new center, where we find community. Walking with the excluded, in the end, becomes building a community of love and helping to usher in the reign of God.