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By Jerry Duggan

Fr. Kevin Cullen, SJ
Fr. Kevin Cullen, SJ

Jesuit Refugee Service has been helping people across the globe for four decades, providing the forcibly displaced with humanitarian aid and moral support. Founded by then-Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, JRS seeks to “accompany, serve and advocate the cause of forcibly displaced people, that they may heal, learn and determine their own future.”

JRS depends on volunteers willing to serve in situations of great need. Father Kevin Cullen, SJ, was one of those volunteers; he served in Uganda from 1995 to 1997.

Raised Catholic in St. Louis, Fr. Cullen from a young age realized he was blessed and wanted to use his privilege to better the lives of others who were not so fortunate.

“I always knew I had it easy in life compared to so many, and I wanted to help those who were not so blessed,” he said.

Ordained a priest in 1986, Fr. Cullen’s Jesuit tertianship program took him to Australia in 1994, where he saw a news clip on the ongoing genocide in Rwanda. Father Cullen asked aloud: “Why doesn’t someone do something about that?”, to which a fellow Jesuit in the room asked him, in retort, “Why don’t you do something about it?” That question stayed with him. Always keenly aware of his privilege, he considered joining JRS.

Father Cullen’s initial desire was to accompany refugees on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It turns out God was calling him halfway across the world, to Uganda. At the time, Uganda was a safe haven for refugees from surrounding nations. The government in nearby Zaire was collapsing, Sudan was entrenched in civil war and Rwanda and Burundi caught up in an ongoing genocide. As a result, Uganda became a place of refuge, primarily for women and children, many of whom had endured unthinkable trauma.

Upon Fr. Cullen’s arrival, he was tapped for the role of assistant country director in Kampala. This entailed working from an office in a supervisory role, being responsible for budgeting, buying supplies for camps and coordinating logistical efforts. He quickly realized he could not do this job without the help of many.

“One of the things that makes JRS special is that our efforts are in conjunction with many others,” he said. “People from all over the world come together in places of great need.”

Father Cullen with a catechist and his family.
Father Cullen with a catechist and his family at a refugee camp in Uganda, 1995

Doctors Without Borders provided medical care and the World Food Bank helped lessen hunger in the refugee camps. JRS focused primarily on educating youth. Like Jesuit education worldwide, their approach was holistic.

“Educating children is important, but we also wanted to restore some sense of normalcy in their lives,” he said. “Children who are traumatized, malnourished or neglected are not in a position to focus on their education, so we first needed to accompany them, to hear their grief, sadness and stories.”

JRS trained women in the camps to become educators, giving them a sense of purpose and a way to overcome their own trauma.

“In doing so, we also showed respect for the sanctity of the existing cultures, languages and histories that only those women had knowledge of, not outsiders from JRS or any other organization,” Fr. Cullen said.

As a result, some refugee women received teaching certificates from the University of Uganda and took their skills back to their home countries when repatriated. According to Fr. Cullen, this is the ultimate goal of JRS: to accompany and empower those displaced.

“It’s all about meeting people where they are – understanding there is trauma, hurt and despair – and then rising above that, equipping those we serve with the tools needed to pick up the pieces and go on to lead successful lives.”

A Christmas Eve procession at a refugee camp.
A Christmas Eve procession at a refugee camp

After two years in Uganda, Fr. Cullen returned to the U.S. with a heightened sense of solidarity with those suffering around the globe.

“The world is more interconnected than we might think,” he said. “There are basic human rights that we all deserve, regardless of who we are or where we’re from.”

Having arrived at this insight, Fr. Cullen spent years serving in Canada with L’Arche, an international organization that shares life with people with intellectual disabilities.

Today, Fr. Cullen serves as pastoral associate at St. Matthew the Apostle Catholic Church in North St. Louis, a diverse, African-American Jesuit parish. More than two decades after his time with JRS, Fr. Cullen finds himself still applying the lessons he learned.

“My time with JRS instilled in me that so many problems in our world come from ignoring the dignity of each person,” he said. “At St. Matthew’s, I try to treat each person with dignity and accompany them through their hardships.”

As JRS starts its fifth decade, it seeks neither to judge nor convert, but to accompany those in need. JRS continues to link existing Jesuit apostolates and their resources with the needs of displaced peoples in our world.

Refugee children drawing water from a pump.
Refugee children drawing water from a pump

Read more about the work of JRS.