Photo credit: Carolyn

Photo credit: Carolyn

By Sheila Read, Justice & Peace Specialist

A friend who is active in many of our ministries serving the poor recently confided that she was struggling. The situation with a family was heartbreaking –  and there wasn’t much she could do to change it.

Since July, our Support Circle team had been working hard, but without success, to help a homeless family find an affordable rental house. It’s a major challenge to find housing in Raleigh for a low-income family with four children – and a landlord generous enough to give a family with a history of eviction a second chance. The family is separated, with the mother and six-week old baby sleeping on a cousin’s couch. Recently, the engine blew up in their car, the vehicle the father depended on to get to work in Durham.

We want so badly to make things better for the family, but the incident was a reminder that so much is out of our control. Seeing my friend’s distress reminded me of the difficulty of getting involved in people’s lives, and brought back memories of why I burned out doing social work. We often end up as helpless witnesses to disappointment, hardship and tragedy.

What to do then? My husband is a former endurance cyclist who loves to say, “go harder.” But in times of suffering the stance I am learning to embrace is countercultural. I found a quote that I copied onto a whiteboard in my office: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” To me, this means to pray, to practice breathing, to contemplate by watching my thoughts and worries and feelings come and go, trusting that all is well in the moment and all is in God’s hands. This is the practice of centering prayer. I find it much easier to talk about than to do.

The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation after working for years with social justice activists, who he realized often burned out and become angry, bitter or cynical. Rohr teaches about the importance of practicing a new consciousness grounded in experiencing the present moment as a gift from God. If we can quiet our worrying minds, let go of our plans of action, and step outside of our egos, we can learn to hold the paradox of our world – the simultaneous presence of the beauty of love and the ugliness of pain.

What does God ask of us? To be merciful as he is merciful. And often being merciful means learning to quiet our anxieties about doing enough, and to learn to praise God for what is.

Update: As of Saturday, Nov. 1, the family is housed in a rental home.