Facing up

by Adam Burns

Last weekend, as part of our annual VOCAdventure program, our office brought the incoming 2017 intake of Brisbane seminarians to Melbourne, for a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Mary of the Cross Mackillop. Following in St Mary' footsteps necessarily meant going out to those society has neglected. And so, our group visited a detention centre.

Now, I know that as a political issue, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is a divisive topic. Whichever side of the fence you sit on though, it's undeniable that it is more than a political issue. When you sit face-to-face with someone who, regardless of what reason, has had to flee their home and seek asylum in another country, it’s undeniable that this is more real than what the media often downplays as an issue of political policy. The question turns from a political one ("what do we do with these people?") to a human one: what can we do for these people?

This was my second time visiting the detention centre in Melbourne, but it wasn't any less shocking. I sat at a table with young men, similar in age to me, whose lives had seen far different circumstances than what I could ever imagine. As stories were swapped, the young men I was sitting with were shocked to learn I was married already at the age of 26! The realisation sank in for me that these men's lives, their hopes and dreams, were indefinitely on hold, and in the hands of judgement of a broken system.

Later that night after the visit, we reflected as a group on the experience of the visit. The common thread was that it was not at all what anyone expected. These weren't violent people, they weren't disruptive. Not only could they speak fluent english, but they spoke with a deep insight and wisdom that penetrated the complacency and entitlement of our Western frame of mind.

The impact of the visit was that these men whom we visited, as well as all the men, women, children and families in detention, are the human face of the refugee and asylum seeker issue. When you encounter the human face of the issue - of any issue - you can't approach it impersonally or distanced. You encounter your brother or sister, who didn't choose their circumstances, but still had to make sense of those circumstances and seek survival from within them.

The reflection on the human face struck me profoundly. For our group of seminarians-to be, and for myself, serving in ministry, we are the human face of the Church. When people encounter us, the Church isn't some distant, hierarchical, ancient institution, it becomes personified. And as the human face of the Church, we need to be different than what we encounter in society and culture - the human face of the Church needs to be a face of love and hope and mercy.

Too often I think our Church is perceived to be approaching issues not people. Maybe we don't need to find or give out answers? Our group didn't do much to practically change the situation of the men we visited, we didn't further their cause. Perhaps at best we lifted their spirits for a moment. Or maybe it was more?

Our group sat with these men in their mess, in the messiness of their situation, not able to give answers or solutions, but offering our time and friendship. We became a human face to them, when perhaps in detention they only encounter an institution or a system. And this is the key. Our Church calls us in mission to sit with people in their mess, to see their human face, and be the human face of the Church. 

Being the face of the Church is sitting with people in their mess - regardless of what that issue or struggle might be. It's visiting asylum seekers and refugees. It's listening to the stories of an elderly person, who has outlived their family. It's reassuring a uni student within the tension of an exam period. It's finding a place for the excluded within our communities. The Year of Mercy may have ended, but the call to be merciful goes on as long as there are issues in our world, because behind any human issue is a human face. If we are to be the human face of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, we in fact become the face of Christ, who is the face of mercy.

We are called to be courageous in love and mercy, to see the human face within the suffering in our world. But not just to see it, but to sit with people in that suffering, to see their face but also to be a human face, when perhaps they are bound with impersonal walls of rules or policies or agendas. We follow a God, who in becoming human, moved past the issues to see the human face, and to sit with and heal that suffering.