"The poor changed my life."

Interview with Fr. Christian Braunigger SJ, the new mission procurator and head of the organization Jesuitenweltweit . He speaks about what the poor have taught him and why he basically considers solidarity with complete strangers to be a gift from God.

P. Braunigger, how do you describe the current times on which the change of staff at Jesuitenweltweit take place?

It is a time of upheaval. The church institutions are losing trust, encouragement and support. We as a Christian aid organization also notice this. But there is also an opportunity in this, because developments are forcing us to consider what is really important to us.

And what is that?

I don't have a finished concept for this yet. Since I started in September, I've spoken to a lot of people: the employees, of course, project partners, and I've also spoken to many donors on the phone. I feel a very strong connection with them. Some have welcomed me, which shows that they consider Jesuitenweltweit as their organization to which I have recently joined. After a concert, a lady drew the sign of the cross on my forehead and said: “May the Lord bless you and your work for the poor of the world!” Such moments and signs touched and made me very happy. And they showed me: our donors value our work.

Proclaim faith to avoid fundamentalism

How does your work relate to God in an increasingly secular society?

It has to stay, even and perhaps especially in an increasingly secular world. We are not just any relief organization, but rather that of a Christian order. Certainly 95% of our donors support us because they have experienced Jesuits in their lives: in youth work, as a student pastor, at retreats, there are very different connections. But what they all have in common is a positive basic experience with the order. It is also important to many donors that we provide pastoral support to the people in the projects. There are even some who are not believers themselves, but for whom it is still important. One told me he was agnostic, but it was important to him that Jesuits also proclaim the faith. When I asked him why, he said: to avoid fundamentalism. The man understands that there is a basic human need for faith and religion, and he obviously thinks that we Jesuits handle this quite sensibly.

There is also the specifically Christian component: God is on the way with people, with refugees, with the poor, he is with them in every situation, no matter how bad. That's why we never see our work as just project funding, but rather we want to share people's lives in the projects we support.

What is the concept of mission today? Jesuitenweltweit was the support organization for German missionaries in Africa, Asia and South America for decades.

The term has certainly become difficult; proselytizing doesn't have a good sound. But if we lead him back to what he basically means, he too has a future. Because mission means sending. God sends us to other people whose worries and needs we want to understand and take seriously.

Dream job mission procurator?

Is your new role the dream job for you, if you can put it that way? There were definitely some reference points in your CV.

Well, destinations in the order are not just a wish. But actually, among the 3 or 4 tasks that I always mentioned when the provincial asked me what I could imagine, there was always Jesuitenweltweit. But I also really enjoyed working as a student priest and teacher. And yes, it is true that there were several points of contact with my current task in my order biography and even before that. As an industrial engineering student, I wanted to do an internship in the global south. At that time I wrote to, among other things, the then missionary procurator, who then put me in touch with the watershed project with Fr. Robert D'Costa SJ in India, where I was actually deployed. The extreme poverty in India, in the remote villages as well as in the larger cities, the encounters with children who have to go to school for hours at a time or with beggars with mutilated limbs as well as my powerlessness in the face of this hardship have had a strong impact on me personally and my view of it World changed. The topic hasn't left my mind since then.

Seeing the eyes of Christ

Is that why you wrote your thesis in Chile?

Actually not, my diploma topic revolved around the reduction of CO 2 emissions in Chile's industry and a critical examination of the emissions trading of greenhouse gases. It was 2005, and Chile was suffering from a deep economic crisis with highly visible homelessness. I was also involved in a hostel that was founded in the first half of the 20th century by the Chilean apostle to the poor, St. Alberto Hurtado SJ. A quote from him challenged me: “Whoever has seen the eyes of Christ will never forget it.” I didn’t fully understand this at first. A little later I was playing a board game with one of our guests, as we called the homeless people. He won, and his eyes radiated such deep joy that I suddenly felt the presence of God in them. I have never forgotten this encounter. It is the same message that Jesus gave to his disciples: “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me!” This is as challenging as it is great. Because this consequently means that Christ himself comes to us in the poor!

And this message then led you into the order?

Yes, I decided to join the order while I was still studying. But I still had a few months until the novitiate began. The mission procurator at the time, Fr. Peter Balleis SJ, suggested that I help out with the Jesuitenweltweit team for a few months. So I got to know the day-to-day business and was able to take part in a meeting of Arab young people in Egypt, which was sponsored by Jesuits Worldwide . I came to one of Cairo's garbage cities, where people look for usable materials. I remember the smell of the garbage that was dumped not only in the streets but also in the houses. I was in the group that played with children and brought them home in the evening. A boy's parents invited me to their small house and offered me a place. I was disgusted. Suddenly the little boy went away and came back after a few minutes with a cola, which they put in front of me. I was ashamed - and yet felt richly gifted by this family. There is an expression: Guest in the house, God in the house. Hospitality like that of this poor family changes hearts, and it changed my heart too. Today I know that we can learn a lot from the very poorest.

Learn from the confidence of the poor

After the novitiate and studying philosophy, you worked for two years with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Kenya.

Yes, in a refugee camp where around 80,000 people lived. We began as pioneers with the distance learning project now known as Jesuit Worldwide Learning. It offers young people in refugee camps or other precarious circumstances a great opportunity for education and possibly even a degree course. I remember a conversation with Muzabel, a young student from Congo: he was eager to learn and supported me with IT administration. He once told me that his mother and brother were slaughtered before his eyes during the Civil War; he himself escaped. Muzabel was a devout Christian, and one day I asked him how it was possible for him to believe in God despite this terrible experience. He replied that for him the experience of escape and protection in the refugee camp was a resurrection; he had unexpectedly been given a new life. He could only thank God for that. Muzabel radiated great hope; today he is committed to helping refugees in the USA. This confidence is also something we can learn from people like him.

What was important to you during your six-month Tertianship in Mexico in 2022?

Many points were important to me. I also supported confreres in the southern state of Chiapas in their pastoral work for the indigenous population. The people there often asked me questions like: “What does your village look like?” Your family doesn't make a living from growing coffee? Then what about?” I didn’t really know how to answer, because these people have no idea how poor their lives are compared to those in Europe. Cut off from the world, there is usually no mobile phone network and there are no televisions. I visited villages, heard confessions, administered the anointing of the sick and celebrated mass. The people there speak little or no Spanish and I only know a few phrases in their language, Tzeltal. Nevertheless, many left feeling comforted and strengthened. There is hardly any medical infrastructure there and hardly anyone can afford to see a doctor. The promise that God strengthens the sick through the Holy Spirit in the sacrament regularly led to tears.

Solidarity between people is a gift from God

What is the most important thing for you about working for the poor?

That we really walk with the poor and not just face them. This is real solidarity. A young person in Venezuela whose school we supported told me during a project visit that he found it completely unbelievable that people far away who don't know the school, the students and their families, still donate to his school. What moves these people? I was amazed and delighted by this perspective. Our donors are actually committed to people on the other side of the world, without local proximity, without a specific connection, without any benefit considerations. They want to share what they have, that is their motivation. Today I would say: the fact that we humans can do this is a gift from God.

What appeals to you about your new role as manager?

In addition to the content of our projects, the great appeal for me is that the new function offers an extremely diverse range of tasks. It is important to consider accounting issues, discuss the orientation of the voluntary service, contact with donors and project partners, employee management... I find this diversity very exciting.

Market incentives instead of aid money?

Anyone who travels through developing countries always sees failed projects. You are an industrial engineer – would you say that market incentives can be used to make projects better and possibly more sustainable?

Partly yes, that's a question I ask myself. Some partners give the impression that they believe that money grows on trees in Europe. They then come up with utopian project proposals where you immediately know that, given their size, they are bound to fail. I'm actually also thinking about the possibility of granting loans to project partners instead of pure aid money. Interest-free, but if successful projects generate income, then the loans would have to be repaid. This would increase motivation, a sense of proportion and responsibility on the part of the partners. Oversized solar systems, such as those that occasionally come up as project proposals, would be prevented if the overdimensioning has consequences. But it's also clear that something like this doesn't work for every project: emergency aid doesn't work with a market, and a primary school certainly doesn't work either.

Where will development aid develop, what trends do you see?

The issue of climate protection is becoming increasingly important, and not just when it comes to the consequences of global warming in southern countries and the population's adaptation to it. I also see opportunities for many countries through the expansion of renewable energies and the construction of hydrogen factories, for example. If something sticks for the population, it can help combat the causes of flight.

That has long been the goal of Western development aid, but let's be honest: is that even possible?

That's very difficult to say, I think we have to be honest about it in the western countries. Hundreds of thousands of people from countries like Haiti, Cuba and Colombia are waiting in Mexico. Venezuela just had the right opportunity to come to the USA. There is an area in Panama called the Jungle of Death, yet thousands of people try to cross it. This is comparable to the march of many Africans through the Sahara towards the Mediterranean coast. As long as their home countries remain politically unstable, corrupt and therefore economically unsuccessful, nothing will change, even if many refugees have utopian ideas of a better life in the USA or Europe. A Venezuelan in Mexico told me: I would rather die on the way than waste away at home. This is the main driver for migration, not, as politicians in this country sometimes think, so-called pull factors such as social benefits.

What gives you courage in this situation?

The hope, no, the experience, that there are many people who are not indifferent to these fates.

Interview: Gerd Henghuber and Steffen Windschall