40th Anniversary: Finding love in a bottle

22 July 2024|Zainuddin, Befriend Project Coordinator, JRS Indonesia in Bogor

I kept staring at his face as he held a bottle of beer for himself and handed me a bottle of soft drink. With a smile that adorned the corner of his lips, he said, “I know you shouldn’t drink beer, that’s why I gave you only a fizzy drink. Hopefully, our chat will be more fun tonight”, said a friend of mine that night.

My journey with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) started with “a little drama” in my family, which is very adherent to Islamic teachings and no experience having any intense relationship with other religions. “What is ‘Jesuit’? How was Jesus portrayed? Is it a Christian organization? So, you want to work there? Are there no other jobs? “Those were some questions from one of my brothers when he found out that I was going to work at JRS. It is a reaction that showed disbelief and objection if I worked for a non-Islamic organization.

At that time, I didn’t understand JRS, its spirituality, vision, and mission. I know that JRS is a humanitarian organization that helps internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Aceh. JRS accepted me as a Peace Education Officer for the Disaster Risk Reduction of School Project in South Aceh. Based on my experience, working in several humanitarian organizations before, I believe that humanitarian organizations generally have inclusive values, visions, and missions. They do not see the differences in race, nationality, religion, and culture as barriers to social interactions. So, my brother’s questions and objections were irrelevant, and I ignored it.

As time passed, I became more and more intense. I understood JRS’s organizational structure, spirituality, and values as the basis of each program. I increasingly feel that JRS is very different from some of the NGOs I worked with before. I discovered how God is involved in every process in JRS. God is always present in the decision-making process both at the individual level and team level. This was the first time I felt I was invited to reflect on what I have done, the benefit for the people I serve, and the impact on me.

At that time, JRS in Aceh used the Living Values Education Program to develop a peace education program. A program that I think is very good, as it uses a values-based approach, is owned by every human being. At JRS, it was also my first experience participating in retreat activity, which I have never done in other organizations.

My understanding of humanity deepened since I joined Befriend Project. I have served asylum seekers and refugees in immigration detention centers (IDCs) for almost eight years. God seemed to open my eyes to the other side of human reality. The contradiction of life between idealism and realism appears before my eyes, and every time I visited detainees in IDC. My conscience seemed to be torn and challenged every time I looked at those shabby faces behind bars and heard cries of people who had to recount their bitter experiences. From these experiences, as a Muslim, I am increasingly able to find similarities between the two values, the one I believe in and another one at JRS. I became more convinced that I didn’t choose the wrong place. I felt like I found the right place to live with my values. JRS is not only a place to work and get paid, but it is more than that. It teaches me a lot about life, and I feel that God always presents and lives in me.

My experience having a conversation with a pastor at JRS who had with him the bottles of beer and a soft drink was a very memorable moment. The feeling of acceptance, respect, and love that has been maintained in diversity keeps me stay at JRS until now.

It has been eleven years of accompanying, serving, and defending asylum seekers and refugees. Previously, I was mostly among fellow Muslims and only a few non-Muslims, so I did not feel any significant challenges in dealing with diversity. However, since I joined JRS, where most of my friends are Catholic and Christian, I have found a different atmosphere. I can feel how to be a minority as a Muslim among the majority of my Catholic friends. I could feel how my faith was tested. When my colleagues drink alcohol and eat pork, I still respect them without drinking and eating things prohibited in Islam. That’s where I found love and respect without being limited by different beliefs.

Interacting with my team at JRS has given me more spiritual experiences. I feel that I found true meaning in applying Islamic spirituality: hablun min Allah (the relationships between human beings and Allah, the God) and hablun min an-n√Ęs (the relationships between humans). Interpreting love for God needs a balance between performing rituals and social worship.

There is no difference in values between Islam and Catholicism in looking at the issue of refugees. Jesus had the experience of being a refugee; the Prophet Muhammad was also a refugee when he had to leave Mecca and migrate for asylum at Medina. The Prophet Muhammad and his group who fled were known as “Muhajirin;” a group of people in Medina who assisted by providing Prophet Muhammad’s entourage with food and shelter were known as “Anshor.” A portrait of the relationship between refugees and local people who helped them was presented in the Prophet Muhammad’s life experience. From this history, it makes me even more convinced of my choice to explore the issue of refugees with JRS.

My knowledge and understanding of the values that I learned from JRS continue, even I have shared and inspired my family. My wife and children also became interested to learn a lot about JRS vision, mission, and specifically about refugees.

Now I am still with JRS Indonesia as Coordinator of Befriend Project in Bogor to accompany, serve, and advocate de facto refugees in urban settings. I feel fortunate that I found a new community at JRS. It provides me space and opportunity to actualize the values that I believe in and develop new cross-faith and cross-cultural values.

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