40 Years of Accompaniment: Rita and Marty Bennett

01 December 2020

Rita and Marty Bennett are long-time supporters of JRS who have had many roles serving and leading the organization over two decades, including as volunteers, Board Members, and grass roots organizers. Their work has been to increase awareness of forced displacement and of the work JRS does to mitigate the suffering of the most vulnerable. Now living in Boston, after twenty years in California, the Bennetts continue to express their commitment to JRS and accompanying refugees.

Describe your life and what was happening when you first became involved with JRS.

Refugees have been present in our hearts and minds since the mid-1970’s when we called Hong Kong our geographic home and professional base. Vietnamese and Cambodian families in flight, poured into Hong Kong looking for safe-haven. Not long after, we learned of Father Arrupe’s inspired response to this humanitarian crisis and the establishment of JRS. Our focus on refugees was seeded in the East, but it did not begin to fully blossom until our return to the US in the 80’s.

While in Hong Kong our professional work focused on assisting (1) first and third generation Chinese refugees and (2) Western expatriates. Each of these cohorts faced cross-cultural adjustment challenges that negatively impacted their personal and family lives, professional livelihoods, and future career opportunities. Our expatriate work later became the foundation for the international cross-cultural management consulting firm we later built, headquartered in the US with offices in key global business hubs including Hong Kong.

The juxtaposition of the two types of “migrants” occupying Hong Kong was most sobering. Expatriates arrived in country underpinned by comforting perks and benefits for themselves and their families with their most frequent complaints being about missing family and friends and the familiar conveniences of home. Expats’ dislocations were time limited whereas refugee dislocations were frightfully tenuous and open-ended with few if any assurances. Expats brought large household shipments and were domiciled in lovely apartments and houses on various parts of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon. Refugees arrive in a foreign location with only tiny parcels of personal belongings and the clothes on their backs. Their wants and needs are for basic safety for themselves and accompanying family, along with a place to sleep, access to clean water and food, education for their children and care for their elderly. In Hong Kong most refugees were found living on the streets, in a few camps, in welcoming centers and in lean-to squatters’ huts within the city as well as on the surrounding mountains and hills. Those images are never to be forgotten.

Most expatriates in Hong Kong proved to be compassionate and dedicated time and money on behalf of the displaced families. They raised funds and helped organize support services but there were others who turned away shocked and afraid of the bedraggled, homeless strangers. This was an important learning in our rapid launch into refugee awareness and understanding.

Where are you in your life today?

After many decades living in Asia, Illinois, and Northern California, we recently planted ourselves near Boston within driving-distance of many extended family members…children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, and nephews.

What difference did JRS make in your life?

JRS transforms our lives each day. It was, of course, the mission and global footprint that drew us in as donors, but it’s been the refugees themselves and the dedicated JRS staff who called us to give more deeply and more personally of ourselves and our capabilities. I’ve been blessed to serve not only on the JRS/USA Board, but along with Marty as members of the International Development Group, a worldwide group of faithful and enthusiastic donors and volunteers.

We’ve “walked with JRS” in many parts of the world from reception centers in Tapachula, Mexico to urban dwellings in Amman, Jordan and have witnessed suffering that has stunned us in its complexity. Gratefully, JRS has consistently impressed us with its measured growth, innovation, long-term sustainability, fiscal accountability and – no surprise given its Jesuit – Ignatian foundation – an acute focus on developing and inspiring incredibly capable women and men around the earth. JRS clearly became our “partner” of choice in service of refugees.…who we trust with good use of our time, treasure, and talent.

Rita Bennet visits a JRS program in Aman, Jordan.

JRS talks about walking with the people we serve and accompanying them on their journeys. What does accompaniment mean to you?

For us, a core to accompaniment is respectfully entering into the personal reality of individual refugees through face-to-face encounters be they in camps, or with urban refugees living on the streets or in humble dwellings. Listening to each refugee’s personal story, and those of their family members and friends…as well as listening to JRS staff, are at the heart of our service. It is a privilege and responsibility to compassionately witness and share in each person’s varying expressions of fear, loss, betrayal, abandonment, and abuse. Likewise, it is uplifting and grace-filled to experience their hopes and dreams for a better future…adding our encouragement and support when appropriate. Our intention is to raise their voices among our friends, families, local faith communities, places of worship, professional colleagues, places of work, community leaders, and “influencers”.

Accompaniment, though, has had another deep meaning for Marty and me. We’re mindful that the needs of refugees and those who serve them sadly aren’t going away soon. Our quest was to launch a movement in Northern California to engage greater numbers of people to take up the cause of refugees (amplify their voices) and the work of JRS. It was an experiment that proved fruitful! The people of Napa Valley responded to the “call”! A solid number of compassionate, dedicated individuals from several faith communities created a sustainable, active, and self-led group that regularly gathers to pray, promote advocacy, raise awareness through events and visits to JRS projects, and raise funds on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers with a special focus on women and children from Mexico and Central America. JRS has been, and will continue to be, the beneficiary of their generous endeavors to “accompany” on many levels, and JRS has accompanied this group of good-hearted volunteers on each step of their journey. Our hope, dare we say vision, is to see this “movement model” spring up with similar groups around the USA and other parts of the world.

We feel good and truly blessed to have participated in this journey with refugees, JRS staff, our beloved California group, and with other donors and volunteers around the world. We are eternally grateful for the friendships of these devoted and generous people.

Rita and Marty with Emmylou Harris at a fundraising concert event they helped to organize in Napa, California.