“Have you ever sat in an overcrowded flimsy boat? Even just imagining it is enough to create anxiety. How desperate does a person have to be to get on such a boat?” ~ Peter Balleis, S.J. Jesuit Refugee Service International Director
Human suffering, especially inflicted by people, saps our faith and our belief in a merciful and compassionate God and maybe even in the ultimate goodness of humanity. Confronted by human suffering, it is quite easy to ask: where is God in all this? It can also kindle within us a profound and powerful sense of empathy.
In the late 1970s, thousands of refugees fled Vietnam on boats, and their desperation “struck and shocked” Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Ever since, the term “boat people” has described those who, driven by despair, cross the sea in overloaded craft often unfit for travel. They risk their lives to find security and freedom from violence, repression and poverty.
Today there are still boat people; it is just the faces and nationalities that have changed. Then, as now, these people are met with violence, derision and detention.
Sharif is a Rohingya, a stateless minority group from Burma. Sharif left Bangladesh on a rickety boat, together with 92 others, and after days lost at sea landed on the Similan Archipelago of Thailand on December 23, 2008.
“The Thai Navy arrived,” he recalled, “and ordered us to lie face down on the beach, hitting us in front of the tourists.”
Saber, a 35-year-old widower from Buthidaung Township, tells JRS: “It hurts me so much to hear that my daughters are now beggars. Why are we detained? I have not committed any crime. I only wanted to escape from the hellish life of misery in Burma.”
Jewish author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel while writing about his time in Buna concentration camp noted that after an act of sabotage the Nazi guardians singled out three people who were to be executed in the presence of all the camp inmates. They were hanged and two men died quickly. But the third one, a 13-year old boy, was too thin and his weight was not enough to break his neck. His agony lasted more than half an hour and the prisoners were obliged to pass in front of him and look at him full in the face. Behind Wiesel a man asked, “Where is God now?”
“And I heard a voice within me answer him. Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows…”
(Night, E. Wiesel, London, 1981).
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”