|A Brief Review of
This Our Exile:
Reviewed by Laretta Benjamin.
How high and long and wide and deep is the Kingdom of God! Most of us need to be reminded of that from time to time, especially those of us within Western culture. This book is not only a powerful reminder of all the ways God is at work in God’s world, but it is also a reminder of our connectedness with brothers and sisters in so many places. This is a wonderful, easy-to-read, “don’t want to put it down” kind of book. The author is a great storyteller and quickly draws us in to the places and lives he is sharing with us.
James Martin, the author and a Jesuit Priest, was sent to Kenya to spend two years (1992 – 1994) working with East African refugees as part of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a Catholic Relief organization. His focus was to help the refugees begin small businesses in order to help provide a way for them to make a living and enable them to at least have a start at putting their lives back together. This two-year experience was to be part of his training as a Jesuit. This book is a wonderfully written story of those years – the building of relationships and the sharing of life with people in a reality very different from our own. In the author’s own words:
[This] book is a series of stories, some funny, some almost unbearably sad, some frankly incredible, and some that are difficult to categorize. The centerpiece of the book is the lives and stories of the refugees themselves; these are woven into the main narrative. Along the way I make some digressions, explaining a few of the less well-known facets of life in Africa, in Kenya, in Nairobi: the customs, the history, the language, the culture, the religious beliefs… but I’ll let the refugees speak for themselves, and when they speak, I’ll use their own words and cadences, sometimes in their own languages. All of these stories, of course, are now gathered from what Willa Cather called the ‘incommunicable past,’ but the sights, the sounds, and the voices are all emblazoned into my memory. I remember them quite well.” I honestly don’t know how the author could have done a better job. The pages of this book are filled with truth and hope and real life. I loved reading the book and will no doubt try and get my hands on other things the author has written. Whether he realized it or not, in sharing the stories and the work with the refugees, the author revealed much about himself in the process. His commitment to the kingdom of God and his love and concern for people is inspiring; his willingness to be “stretched” and to walk out of his comfort zone is a wonderful example for many of us; the wisdom and insights he shares on life, people and the Christian faith are thought-provoking; and his openness to God’s transformation in his own life through those he was called to serve is encouraging. He says himself “the other part of the story is how my heart was changed.” (xvii).
The author freely shares his struggles and his failures along with the joys and the victories.
We are given a glimpse of what it would be like to be a refugee, although like most struggles in life, only those living through them can truly know and understand what it’s like. Even though I’m sure every refugee camp is unique it its own way in its own location, we are given a picture of life in a refugee camp, particularly the Thika Reception Centre (refugee camp) outside of Nairobi. The country of Kenya has had thousands of refugees pour into their borders through the years due to the violence and instability of so many of the African nations surrounding it. During his two years in Kenya, the author met those touched by the unforgettable genocide in Rwanda (1994) and he shares with us the stories and lives of some he encountered from those unbelievable days.
In the last couple of chapters the author takes the time to share his reflections and lessons learned from his time and experiences working alongside the refugees. His words are thought-provoking and “from the heart” – bringing all the chapters and all the lives together into another one of those powerful “kingdom of God” stories that are happening all over our world.
There were two particular thoughts (among many!) he shared that I found striking. One was at the very beginning and the other at the very end. In his introduction in speaking about mission and missionaries, he said “…while in the past a missionary may have believed he or she was sent to bring God, I knew, like most of the people with whom I worked in East Africa, that my mission was more complex: to find God among the people – and to learn who God is for them. And that particular mission I was able to accomplish, thanks to the refugees.”
In his ending reflective chapter entitled “The Mustard Seed”, the author states “I also know how connected we remain – still – through the miles and with the passage of time. And I know that if I am connected to my refugee friends thousands of miles away, then I am also connected to the refugee boy huddled under the blanket, that is, to a person I’ve never met. And, if this is true, then I’m connected to everyone else in the world. So this I know.”
Thank you, James Martin, for sharing your story with us. It was unforgettable, and my mind and heart have been touched and changed.