Todo comenzó con un encuentro
Background: In this exchange on July 10, 2012 in Madrid, Fr. Alberto Ares, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed migration and globalization. Fr. Ares talked about his development as a Jesuit and how his travels around the world have shaped his research on migration and its interaction with a newly globalized world. The two also discussed migration’s future for both the Jesuits and the Catholic Church as a whole.
I grew up in a tiny village in the north of Spain, near Galatia. Growing up, I admired my Jesuit teachers and wanted to live lives like they lived; in 1997, I made the decision to join the order myself. Since then, I have been living as I had hoped – changing locations every three years or so, seeing much of the world, and studying the ways and places in which they move about.Describe your academic work – what is it about migration that so fascinates you?
First of all, I love being with people from all over the world: different countries, different backgrounds, different languages and cuisines. I find God in all of them, and I believe that interculturalism is being part of one big family. The more you go and see of the family, the more you realize how connected it is. Another thing that really excites me about my work is that I get to live with multiple identities – and not only those of the people with whom I live. I remember in Boston, in particular, I would find myself waking up in my Jesuit community, working with local migrant communities for part of the day, then going into Boston College to meet and study with academics before returning to my community at night. I find that kind of living very fun and stimulating.
And what impact has all that travel and study had on you?
I’ve been blessed to be touched with the experience of Ignatius and the First Companions, who travelled everywhere and did their works in ministry, education, and inculturation. Beyond that, my travel has certainly made me more flexible and understanding towards unfamiliar people, customs, and situations. I’ve also realized that there’s almost always more to the story than it first appears; that’s certainly true of the issue of migration, which turns out to have ramifications in terms of more than just national borders. Most people can conceive of migration as a legal issue of border-crossing, but fewer go the next steps and see how it also affects people’s access to health care, education, and economic success. At best, people are simply misinformed or inexperienced with the issues as migrants actually live them; at worst, they can be actively prejudiced against migrants whom they think are coming to “steal” jobs that are rightfully “ours.” It doesn’t take much experience living with people to understand that nobody’s putting himself through the difficulty of migration just to steal your job. It’s far more complex, and living and working with these people constantly reminds me of that.
On the other hand, what challenges have your travels posed to you personally and to the Church in general?
The first thing I’d say is that I’ve been forced to learn about the sheer level of violence that migrants often face before they leave. I’ve met people all over the world who have told me stories of the most horrific violence being visited upon them with the intention of either forcing them out of where they are or making them stay put. The worst is when there’s pressure from both sides and people get caught between a home that is no longer possible to live in and a destination that refuses to accept them. Frankly, I’ve heard a lot of stories like that from the U.S. border with Mexico. Here in Spain, we’re seeing migrants being lost in the economic crisis: they came here during boom times in response to a demand that has now evaporated, and it’s not so easy for them to just pick up and leave now that nothing’s being built anymore. And of course there’s the inherent and overt nativism that the crisis is bringing on – with about a quarter of Spain unemployed right now, there’s a long line for immigrants to wait in for a job. At the same time, we face other kinds of migration, like northern Europeans moving to Spain to retire in the sun. They paid all their taxes to their home nations, and now they show up here, sign a piece of paper and have free access to Spanish national health care. There are intra-EU transfers to help deal with that problem, but it’s a significant one.
Luckily, Spain has done a lot of good things on the issue of migration in the last 10 years or so. We’re actually pretty well prepared to deal with it; as a Mediterranean country, we’ve been pretty multi-cultural for a long time. We’ve also been paying attention to how other countries are dealing with migration and learning from that while continuing to learn and innovate on our own. The problem isn’t intractable, but it’s going to take some creativity and goodwill to sort it out.
For the Church, migration has brought sudden and strong pressure to bear on the hierarchy to learn how to minister to communities of different and/or mixed origins. This is especially the case in the United States, where the native Catholic population and the ever-growing in-migrating one are often at loggerheads. There are problems of language, of culture, and of socio-economic-political position and values. The Church is really scrambling to figure out how to minister effectively to these two apparently different communities within the same faith.
Let’s get back to your living and working with migrants. You’re clearly very aware of their lives and concerns; how did you go from growing up in a tiny Galatian village to international traveller and student of migrant populations? How has that changed your moral-spiritual worldview?
Being in touch with migrants has a lot to do with values: accompanying people who have next to nothing – often not even a home – you realize pretty quickly what really matters to them in life. Pilgrimage in general certainly touches you, and I’d say the biggest way it’s impacted me is in teaching me about gratitude and hospitality. Just like how we who have more don’t often appreciate the circumstances that induce people to migrate in the first place, neither do we usually see reason to give thanks in the profound way that I have seen migrant people do all over the world. It seems that when they have so little, even a little good thing does not go unappreciated. I have also been overwhelmed many, many times by the hospitality of poor and migrant people. For them, the idea of hospitality runs very deep: they offer everything they have because they know that tomorrow, it might very well be them who need to rely on the hospitality of strangers for survival. To these people, universal hospitality isn’t a question of philosophy, but of practicality.
The other thing that I’ve really learned from poor and migrant people is faith. These people have a degree of faith, hope and trust in God that is hard to find in those of us with more advantages. I’ve met people in the direst of circumstances who are able to keep going because they know that God’s taking care of them. That’s an amazing thing to witness, particularly as a priest. Accompanying these people has truly been a gift in my life and my vocation, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I wonder if we who are more settled might profit from going on the Exodus ourselves…
You’ve talked a bit about migration in response to demand and about the different perspectives of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Keep developing that – how do your experiences and insights tie into globalization?
I’m not sure how long the world can accept its current walls and frontiers. Globalization has been a tremendously good development for the top strata of the world’s population, who can jet from here to there for work or play, earning and spending vast amounts of money basically wherever they choose. For the majority of people, though, globalization has probably been a net loss up to this point. The “globalized” lifestyle that people like you and I usually think of is essentially enabled by the largely unseen work of lots and lots of poor people (migrants or not). I’m not sure how long those people will be content to support a system that does not offer them the same level or tangibility of benefits that it does the “globalized” classes.
Another insight I’d offer on globalization is the importance of migration – perhaps better thought of as pilgrimage – in coming to understand our own place, culturally and individually, in the migration story that is human history. Most of us, even and especially those of us who are now settled, have migration in our recent family past (within a few generations). Maybe your grandparents were the first ones to arrive in your country. Maybe a big chunk of your family emigrated elsewhere. It’s important for us to remember that the way things are isn’t the way they’ve always been or will be. Moreover, it’s just interesting to trace stories of migration, especially one’s own. There’s a saying in Spanish, el roce hace el cariño: contact brings caring. Once you’ve eaten, drunk, laughed, sung, cried, danced, prayed with people, you have access to a whole different level of culture and reality. This is especially true if they’re your own people (as when I recently visited relatives in Argentina that the Spanish side of my family had lost contact with 60-plus years ago), but it’s also true of societies. If societies, countries, or cultures want to get to know and care about each other, they’ve got to start with genuine contact.
Finally, I’d say that diversity is going to be one of the biggest – if not the biggest – challenges of the coming years and decades. Globalization means the human family reunion, and it’s going to be awkward at times. There are going to be relatives we don’t especially like or understand. But we have to find meeting points. As I put it in a recent article, our choice is “Babel vs. Pentacost”: we can either go about emphasizing our misunderstandings, or we can accept that even if other people are speaking in tongues we don’t understand, we’re still all about the same thing.
Based on that societal-level analysis of globalization, what’s going to be important for the Jesuits in dealing with all that?
For us, diversity is likewise going to be a major challenge. That’s true both inside and outside the Order, which is diversifying even as it tries to serve diversifying societies in a world coming to know its own diversity. Part of our response has to be dealing with diversity and difference more than just in writing. It’s nice that we have so many people thinking and writing about the matter (which is important!), but we’re underserving both ourselves and our world if we effectively cloister ourselves in the academy and neglect to do diversity and “globalization” up close and personal. Ignatius very intentionally abandoned the model of cloistered religious life; we’d be remiss if we lost the worldliness and practicality the order is known for.
Luckily, we’re getting more and more in touch with our roots, which – like globalization – is both humbling and rejuvenating for us. The other thing that’s happening, of course, is an increased opening to lay people. We certainly can’t do it alone now (as if we ever could); there simply aren’t enough Jesuits. But feeling weakness is actually good and healthy for the Society – the important thing is just to face that weakness. Ignatius called the Order a “company,” and its companions – both lay and Jesuit – who are most important to greeting the future in a way that’s helpful and healthy.
Ultimately, I’m happy to be a Jesuit. It gives me great inner peace and joy, and I really deeply enjoy the companionship I’ve found in my brother Jesuits. I’m convinced there are more lights than shadows in our Church and in our world. I’m confident we can keep finding our way into those lights.