A Discussion with Father Michael Linden, S.J., Jesuit Superior, Amman, Jordan

With: Michael Linden

June 9, 2016

Background: As a part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2016 undergraduate student Jonathan Thrall interviewed Father Michael Linden, S.J., a Jesuit priest and Jesuit superior for Jordan and Iraq. In this interview, conducted at the Jesuit Center in Amman, Linden discusses the three branches of the Jesuit mission in Jordan, the relationship between the Jesuit Center and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and offers his views on the programs implemented by JRS, including those of its partner Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM).
Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Michael Linden. I’m a Jesuit priest, and I’m the Jesuit superior of Jordan and Iraq for the Society of Jesus, based almost entirely in Amman, where the Jesuits have been for 26 years. I’ve been here coming up on five years.

Could you tell me briefly about your educational and professional background?

I’m a University of Chicago graduate and postgraduate [of economics]. I joined [the Society of Jesus] in 1968.

Could you tell me a bit about the Jesuits here in Amman? Maybe who is present here and the work you guys do?

Sure, okay. There’s three pieces of the Jesuit mission that find their home here. The first is a traditional piece, which is the ordinary Catholic ministry among English-speaking Catholics in the Vicariate of Amman—and we’re part of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is the Holy Land. Jordan is part of the Holy Land in the way the Church divides up the world. So we handle all of the English-speaking ministries, which is largely Filipino workers, Indian workers, Sri Lankan workers, a lot of embassy or managerial-level workers—and everyone is technically a migrant, and English is their best language for public worship and Catholic ministries. We have about 1,200 people on a given weekend in our five locations for public Masses, and we have a website, and it’s mostly Catholic ministries, except maybe burials—we don’t do many of them because people are highly migratory.

The second piece of work is what’s known as the Jesuit Center, which is a pastoral center for Arabic-speaking persons, mostly Christians. And it’s Bible courses, spirituality courses—in-house and by outreach—and we also do cultural programs and are very interested in developing more programming in the area of faith and culture. The third area is new. We are, if you will, the legal holders of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which is about five or six years old in Jordan now, and it’s coming into its own as an NGO. But we’ve been the shepherding community for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Jordan, at a time when there were large inflows of Iraqis, then Syrians, and now Iraqis. But also many flows—I think there’s 26 or 27 nationalities who seek refuge in Jordan.

To clarify—the Jesuits have been based here in Amman for 26 years?

For 26 years, yeah. And right now essentially I’m the only full-time staff Jesuit. The center has a staff, JRS has a staff, and the parish right now is missing its pastor, and I’m substituting, of course. And I also have two retired priests who contribute very well in different areas of the overall mission.

And the Jesuits here serve Jordan and Iraq?

There was a former presence in Iraq from 1932 until 1968. After the Israeli invasion in the Middle East, American interests in the Middle East became highly suspect, including ours, and we were told by the revolutionary council in Iraq to leave in 1968 and 1969. But there’s some chance we could actually get back into Iraq, and I’m kind of, if you will, the little sailboat that’s trying to navigate a way back into Iraq.

Could you clarify the relationship between JRS and the Jesuit Center?

The Jesuits are licensed by the archbishop of Amman and by the patriarch to undertake ministries. And we can also develop our own ministries, and they want us to. And one ministry that we did develop was visiting of, at the time, Iraqi refugee families. Not long after we started that ministry at the center, which was done by Jordanians and Iraqis, JRS wanted to mobilize for Jordan, because Jordan had come under the purview of the Middle East office of the JRS. And they came probably about five and a half years ago and have been elaborating ministries according to their mission sense, which absorbed all the visiting work and has added schooling. And there were several types of schooling going on; right now there’s Higher Education at the Margins, which is the main feature of the schooling. There was a school in [a neighborhood in Amman called] Ashrafieh, an informal adult education in English and computer skills.

Could we talk about the second piece of the mission, the pastoral center here?

Well, it’s a small diocese, let’s put it this way. And there are seven or eight churches in Amman and another seven or eight in the cities and villages—and that’s the [Roman Catholic Church, referred to in Jordan as the] “Latin Church.” There are more Greek churches, and then are Orthodox everywhere. The Orthodox is the major Christian community here. So there’s not a lot of common ground where parishes or churches can meet; there’s not a lot of joint effort. There’s plenty of friendship, but there’s not a lot of implementation. So our job has become facilitating people doing some adult faith development. And we do some of it ourselves, and we facilitate and provide space, or teachers, or whatever for others. And we’re able to host, and we’re able to implement ourselves.

And our contribution has been courses in Bible and spirituality and, recently we do cultural integration work for adults of mixed faith and of mixed ethnicity, in adult human development, which for us, theologically, would also be faith development. And we were able to do a theatrical production, as well, with some of Jordan’s best TV personalities. And it was done on the book of Revelation, and in particular the letter to the church at Philadelphia, which compliments them because they have been so generous in hosting those without homes. Which is, of course, a refugee piece—and we turned it into a refugee piece.

You mentioned partnership with the Orthodox church. How are those relationships?

The relations with the Orthodox church are good, and the patriarch and the archbishop, and the Orthodox leadership as well as the Greek Catholic leadership; in Jordan it’s actually quite healthy relationships. It’s not the case in many other Middle Eastern countries, but in Jordan there is a kind of careful regard of everybody else. And the idea is the Christians are only about a 3 percent minority all together, and they don’t want to seem any more disunified than they have to in the face of the Muslim majority, who would, you know, find it scandalous if we were in disunity. So they like to portray a unified portrait of Christianity.

Could you tell me more about the cultural activities?

Well, for three years we’ve done what we call a "culture experiment," and we use movement and dance as the language. And people come in ethnic groups, so it’s Filipinos, Sudanese, Jordanians—well, Jordanians find it hard to participate, but they’re in it. And each of them does some sort of a presentation, and then we mix the groups for joint work.

So we’re doing that, and we get a trainer in who’s a choreographer and work for five weeks, and then have a big showcase with friends and family and others. None of these people have ever danced for stage before, and all of them get skills. All of them get adult experience of other ethnic groups. Some of them get adult experience of interfaith dimensions, without having to engage in a great dialogue, or the great fight. Because these dialogues always end up in a fight; they don’t have to end up in a fight.

And so perhaps through this, dialogue emerges more organically?

It’s all organic, yeah. And the language is an organic language; it’s not a language that is going to let anyone get into trouble with anyone else. And we’d like to make that a year-long thing, but we’ll get closer and closer.

And so you get students from the JRS Higher Education Center who participate in these through their respective communities?

Yeah, sure, you get good students at JC:HEM who are already culturally aware, and they can handle this quite well, and they do. You know, they’re in a growth environment as adults already. So this, if they have the time, and some of them do, they—they’re happy usually.

And so did you open it directly to the students at the JRS Higher Education center?

Yeah, that’s—it was interesting, because we knew there were Africans, for instance, and Iraqis. And the Iraqis responded very big, and the Africans responded very big. And the Iraqis tend to be Christian, and the Africans are Muslim, and a mix of others was involved.

But, so, these programs aren’t directly linked to the Higher Education programs and the Learning Center? You just happen to have some of the same students participate in these experiments?

No, we would do it anyway. Right, yeah.

So it’s basically independent of the JRS Learning Center, and the Jesuit Center is independent of what goes on there, but just because of proximity and overlap of the communities, there’s—

Yeah, there’s collegial capacity here. These are not standalone operations, siloed operations, in every respect. In some respects they are siloed, but yeah.

What are some of the challenges involved in doing some of these programs?

There are a couple of problems. Yeah, because finance is an issue. Because unless you have fairly good evangelically-based finance, you don’t do cultural programs. You can only do hard programs, with lots of metrics on them—like schools for instance. Or a certain amount of charity work, which has dollars and cents, usually, for its metrics. So funding has to be through more evangelical or community-based means, and that’s fine. There’s obviously less money for that than there would be for hard projects and for services that are—have a lot of numbers attached to them.

The second area is Jordanian participation is always a challenge. Because Jordanians culturally regard themselves as hosts, not as participants. So they find it difficult to be equal with their guests. Now, that’s not saying it’s impossible, but it is a challenge to them to enter into such a process, and it’s also a challenge for them to sustain themselves in such a process.

Based on those challenges, what are some either ideal or realistic improvements that you’re working on or would love to see here?

In terms of improvements, you know, with my present staffing and baseline budgeting, we could grow by another 15 percent in our overall spread and activity. And that 15 percent could mean more people, an additional program, or higher participation within existing programs. But we don’t have to face a remake of the system until I’ve got about 15 percent more involvement in the present setup. I don’t know if we’ll reach that point, but it’s possible. That’s a challenge, and that’s a combination of money and talent and time. And the difficult thing there is to get higher levels of Jordanian participation. That’s, I think, the growth curve there.

On top of the cultural experiments, some of the students at JRS Higher Education mentioned something about academic lectures that you and your colleagues had given?

Oh, we give them seminars. Yeah...it’s up to them to mobilize, but we’ve done—[Father] Peter has done a seminar on Proverbs, and I gave them a seminar on how to read fiction and poetry and analytics around genre. And we got them relating to poetry in English and then poetry in Arabic. And I wouldn’t do technical stuff. I mean, I’m an economist by training, but I’m not going to tell them how to break into public accounts and how to become, you know, a well-paid civil servant and things like that. No, they’ll figure that out themselves.

So we can do that, and actually I’m waiting on a series of films and things that we can do with them. Actually, next year I’m thinking of getting a staffer in on the center for cultural work, and part of his or her work would be a general cultural program in the evenings that the students of JC:HEM as well of others could participate in. It’d be a mix of things, anything from films to ballroom dancing to stuff that is a little bit, you know, just growing young adults more and more and, in the case of the refugees, providing some capacity to help westernize them.

For resettlement, you mean?

Get them a little bit, yeah, in the groove. For the cultural aspects of resettlement, not for the economic and—

Yes, for most students at JRS that I have spoken to, Jordan really is that space in between, where they’re waiting, kind of a limbo almost, before the next step.

Yeah, and they are guests. And if they are paying guests like Iraqis, they’re welcome. If they are Arab brothers like the Syrians, they are welcome. But if they are not paying guests and if they are black, they are not welcome. And yeah...that’s part of Arab culture here.

How did those seminars you mentioned start?

It’s part of the JC:HEM program. They try to find local expertise to supplement and, since all of us here have advanced degrees, we’re an easy hit.

So they reached out to you?

Yeah, we’re easy on these things. In fact, they’ve been doing a very difficult module in philosophy, and one of my guys actually has a very good doctorate in philosophy—but they haven’t nailed him yet! So it’s up to them to do the bag job!

Yes, many have expressed to me the difficulty of their philosophy module.

Well, most of them come from colonial education systems, post-colonial, and they’re used to swotting, not to studying. They're used to cramming for an exam and shooting at it. They’re not used to, sort of, productivity every day. It’s called swotting. It’s what the English schoolboys do when they’re, you know, they spend all their time chasing girls and playing sports, but then the last two weeks before exams they study. Cramming, yeah. So that’s why they find it difficult to stay. It’s not the English; it’s the daily four or five hours.

What does the name “Higher Education at the Margins” mean to you?

Well, to me, you know, it’s higher education. And it’s done as online courses with, I think, pretty enriched oversight and delivery systems. I think it’s—it’s designed for marketing purposes in the West. Because you’d have a lot of professors and others in the donor zone who either volunteer time and expertise or money, who look for this kind of phraseology.

The margins part of the name, especially, you mean?

The margins part, yeah. Now, I presume these people are on the margins. I mean, there’s margins everywhere. You could pick prisoners in prison, you could pick, you know, disenfranchised oil workers in—you know, you can do anything. The margins you don’t have to worry about. So it’s basically higher education done in an enriched, programmed learning online. And it’s fine. I think it’s probably very expensive, but it’s free to the end user. But my impression is, if it were monetized, it would be pretty expensive.

And, in your opinion, why higher education for refugees, especially if they can’t work or have their degree recognized?

Well, they’re capable of it, number one, at least in a Western understanding. We don’t use higher education on a screened basis as is done in virtually the rest of the world. Okay? So it’s part of, if you will, a "higher democratic ideal." All those can be enlightened by higher learning and all of that.

Anyway, it’s also a racket—in the West as well—in which, you know, there’s all kind of higher education stuff going on, and all kinds of management of young adults during their times when they have to learn how to work and manage their sex lives and all this stuff. So they become these campus incubators for adults. And the private owners of campuses love to talk about the football team and the entertainment package and the 10 acres of grass, and, you know, it’s all a big marketing for things parents would rather pay for than do themselves to introduce their mature children into adult life. So here, it’s strictly school, and that’s fine. And it’s acquisition of skills: acquisition of credible, believable credits and transferable credits, and all of that.

Do you see parts of the Jesuit ethos operating through the JC:HEM programs?

Well, I don’t know anything about a Jesuit ethos. All right, I think there’s a big propaganda mission of the Jesuits, and it sort of gets taxied into the literature of/work of the Jesuits. It’s fine by me, you know, but propaganda is propaganda. I don’t pay any attention to it. You know? So it doesn’t matter if it’s my organization or any other kind of organization; it’s all company talk, and company talk is a species of literature that’s worthless. You know, I could read reports from Polaroid, or from Microsoft or something, and it’s the same kind of literature. Just substitute different nouns and adjectives. I mean, you know, it’s hard not to be jaded about the use of discourse in institutional profiling. But I’d say less is more.

What does social justice mean to you, and how do you think it relates to the programs implemented by JRS and through JC:HEM?

Well, education is a marketable good, okay? So you’re talking about distributive justice only. So we’re essentially transferring knowledge/skills/credits to a minority community that needs those knowledge/skills/credits to become, you know, more responsible actors in modern life. Okay? So it’s distributive justice. And it’s a transfer of expensive goods into the capital of poor people. And that’s fine. And it’s a good type of justice, and it’s a manageable type of justice.

Then there’s other things on the sides, because you get involved with people and their situations, and that may be normative justice in the case of creating a revised refugee law, or it might be other types of justice around—the pole of power and submission, or around the pole of superior and inferior, which is, of course, a discrimination pole. But those happen, you can get a little of that going on. But this is an exercise in distributive justice.

Is there anything that you would want to add?

I like the idea, you know, that [the JC:HEM program is] international. 'Cause they, the students and the teachers, can relate. I don’t know how people in New York or Washington manage it, because it’s a lot of people in a lot of settings, with a lot of bits and pieces being done in piecemeal fashion. So there is a massive effort at coordination I think, and it’s a great piece of work. I don’t think in the long-run it’s sustainable. But that’s just an outsider’s view.

Actually, I did want to expound briefly on something before we end this interviewyou mentioned that the culture experiments that you run here have an aspect of what you might call community building. This is what JRS commits itself to as well, right?

Yeah, they do it. They have some non-credit courses, and actually they cultivate a fair number of the diploma students from the non-credit experience. So they do some work in peer supervision around psycho-social, which is always very successful because there’s practically no counseling capacity in Jordan, or the Arab world actually. And so that’s a rich field for activity, and the people who practice are really [doing] important cultural work. There’s some intermediate level English and there’s some preparatory courses, and they can be very good, too.

And I think they’re valuable. I just think probably the flagship has to remain the diploma, because it’s got all the kind of, you know, the measures on it. But the non-formal stuff, which engages imagination, culture, experience—those things are very important, too! And they can be done on the cheap. You just need an arena, and Jesuits provide arenas. And I’m happy there’s an arena here. And there’s some very good bits of programming in the arena, but the arena remains an open field for the engagement of people, who, with safety and respect, will engage each other for their mutual growth.

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