Hanging on the wall where I work at Jesuit Refugee Service in Wapping is a picture which I am very fond of. Reproduced here, it is a picture of Saint Alberto Hurtado.
He is a twentieth century saint who died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 52. Before he joined the Jesuits, Alberto was a lawyer – which would later prove useful in his work for the poor people of Santiago in Chile.
Early during his time as a Jesuit priest, he spent much of his time working for the Catholic Church, working especially with students, giving retreats and teaching. He found time to write a book on Chile as a Catholic Country. All this seems fairly routine for a Jesuit priest. But in 1944 he began to encourage other people to join him in working for the poor in Santiago, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets there.
An inspiration to us: Hosting
This work developed until he could provide not just food and shelter but a welcoming home-like place for the children to go to. He called this ‘Hogar de Cristo’ – ‘The Home of Christ’. At JRS we have a similar idea – the ‘At Home’ hosting scheme – where destitute and homeless asylum-seekers are offered a time to stay with someone for four months – providing a home, at least for a while, and not just overnight emergency accommodation. Alberto’s work later expanded to provide homes for men and women, including facilities for training and rehabilitation.
“I had quite a big house for just myself, with spare rooms—for just me, you know? So, I couldn’t say no. The Lord was looking down on me, saying ‘what about those spare rooms?’ I am pleased I did it.”
At present our hosting scheme is in urgent need of more hosts. Hosting a refugee friend is a powerful way of living a true ‘culture of encounter’ and putting social justice into action. Could you host?
An inspiration to us: Legal Project
Our work at JRS echoes Alberto’s life in other ways. Saint Alberto qualified as a lawyer and was heavily involved in labour movements in Chile. Today, our Legal Project provides assistance in negotiating the complex obstacle-course which the Home Office places in the way of refugees seeking official recognition of their need for asylum – of their need for a place of safety from violence and persecution.
“Without access to free legal representation, access to justice is restricted to those who can pay for it. Where access to justice is not universal it ceases to be justice…”
Michael, Senior Policy Officer, explains the need for increased legal support and why legal aid is essential.
An inspiration to us: Offering welcome
Saint Alberto is an inspiration for many of us who work at the Jesuit Refugee Service. Our office is in a building called the Hurtado Centre. I hope he watches with approval from his picture in the main hall where we welcome hundreds of refugee friends each month. Like ‘The Home of Christ’, there’s a cup of tea or coffee and a snack; refugee friends can sit and chat or just rest for a while. We try to make it a welcoming home-like place to come to. While refugee friends are in the centre, they can pick up some food, maybe some clothing, take part in activities, or meet others over a hot meal at our fortnightly Social Drop-In.
In the lower corner of the portrait of Saint Alberto Hurtado which hangs in our centre is a picture of a green pick-up truck.
On most days, Alberto Hurtado would drive around Santiago in this green pick-up truck to bring destitute children to ‘The Home of Christ’ for food and shelter. It’s an inspiration to all of us who work with Jesuit Refugee Service in the Hurtado Centre in Wapping to provide welcome, care and support to the many refugees and asylum seekers who find their way to our country. His ability to inspire others to social action encourages us to keep reaching out and talking to others about what is going on in the UK and the social change we need. He brought together intellectual reflections on the church with real action for change.
Saint Alberto would be a good patron-saint for Jesuit Refugee Service. Committed to providing help to destitute people combined with a warm welcome, he would be a good pick for a patron saint. But he won’t be – JRS was founded by another Jesuit, Fr Pedro Arrupe and we are hoping he will be made a saint quite soon, and would become the patron of JRS. Nevertheless, Saint Alberto inspires us, and for his intercession in our work we are always grateful.
Fr Mike Smith SJ is part of the St Ignatius community in Stamford Hill. He works with JRS three days a week, running the JRS Shop and offering a welcome to refugee friends who come to the centre.