by Trevor Thompson, Director of Justice and Peace
There are many ways we can bring God’s love to another person in need. The variety of ministries in Justice and Peace give witness to this. We have many ministries that collect, grow, make, and/or distribute items, whether this is food, clothing, furniture, money, or other gifts. We have other ministries that welcome the stranger into our midst, provide shelter for homeless families, and visit the prisoner. These ministries usually provide a greater opportunity for interaction with those in need, and they look to engage long-term solutions not just responding to emergency needs. And lastly, we have other ministries that work towards learning about and addressing unjust social systems and policies. It certainly takes all of these to fully live out our mission, offering hope to those who hunger for human dignity.
This month, I want us all to consider the ways our ministry leadership exudes a humble attitude and an empowering spirit worthy of the dignity of the people we are serving. Let’s look at this more closely.
Quite frankly, we can be really good intentioned in our ministries, and we can still reek of self-righteousness. We can exude the kind of Pharisaical attitude of the man in the gospel who says, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous” (Luke 18:11). We end up looking like the Pharisees who participated regularly in worship and followed the letter of the law, and at the end of the day, sit justified in their successes and self-proclaimed securities of religion, work, home, neighborhood, and country. We might even tithe generously to the poor or give of our abundance, but rather than feeling a sense of solidarity or compassion, we go home at the end of day and say, “Thank God I am not like that.”
As we see in Scripture, Jesus did not take this patronizing posture
|Woman at the Well and Jesus
Artist: He Qi.
with us. Rather, he met people where they were and walked with them on a journey. It was this intimacy and vulnerability with those in need of mercy that allowed him to hear the cry of the poor. He built relationships with people. He listened to their stories, their struggles, and their dreams. He could hear their cries as his own cries. Jesus’ life was an embodiment of exquisite mutuality and kinship! Jesus’ life is about inclusion; it’s about dismantling the barriers we put up to divide “us” from “them.” God continues to expand the doors of compassion so that no one is ever left out, no one’s voice is kept silence, no one’s heart is kept in the dark. How does God make sure of this? He did not sit on high in judgment. Instead, as the gospel of John says, “He pitched a tent and lived among us.”
“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
The privileged place the poor are accorded in the Gospels must translate into their receiving a privileged place in the heart and mind and work of the church if we are to remain faithful to the Gospels, Pope Francis exhorts us.
One of the first steps we can make to move from a patronizing posture to a place of kinship is to look at ourselves honestly and humbly. When we look at our lives,
|Girl Before a Mirror Artist: Picasso|
we realize that we are not self-made men and women sufficient unto ourselves. Rather, all that we are and all that we have are gifts, gifts given not because of our worthiness or our hard work but because of God’s mercy and compassion. We are the people we are because of a long legacy of circumstances, choices, people, and doors opened and closed.
Certainly, our ability to take responsibility for our lives is part of becoming an adult, but this should not rule out the equally mature realization that much of what we have has little to do with us. And left to our own will power, without relying on God’s grace and the support of a community of faith, we often don’t make wise decisions in our lives.
This kind of insight into ourselves should help us become more humble, and in turn, our ministries will become places that reach out and truly respect the dignity of the people we are serving. A posture of humility, when it is genuine, does not divide people but bridges the distance between us. Humility is attractive. It invites co
nversation. It welcomes the “other” in instead of pushing them out. It sees everything we have as an undeserved gift. It makes us all brothers and sisters in need of each other.
Moving towards this posture of humility before God and others will help us move away from a patronizing approach to our ministries. Instead, we will look for opportunities in our ministries to do more listening to people’s stories, sharing in their joys and burdens, meeting them where they are, and asking how we can help.
Good Books for Inspiration
I want to highlight two books that might help us to move towards this kind of humility. The first is a classic by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Nouwen reflects in this book on the call of the Chrisitan to “reach out” in courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to God. To do this, however, Nouwen challenges us to face and explore directly our inner restlessness, our mixed feelings toward others, and our deep-seated suspicions about the absence of God. Too frequently, it’s our insecurities, loneliness, and fears that keep us from reaching out in humility to others.
The second book I want to mention is a powerful work written by Jonathan Kozol called Fire in the Ashes that tells the fascinating journeys and unexpected victories of a group of inner-city children he has known for many years. Some of these children never recover from the battering they undergo in their early years, but many more battle back with fierce and often jubilant determination to overcome formidable obstacles they face. Kozol exudes the kind of humility that I’m referring to. He visits them in their homes, listens to their stories, shares life with them over years and years, and looks for ways to provide empowering pathways out of poverty. The families trust him and feel that he respects their stories. In turn, his worldview, his politics, and his own way of life were challenged by the relationships he created with these children.
Ministries of Empowerment
There is no doubt that everyone reading this wants to help others, and I admire you for the many sacrifices you make for the sake of your ministries. Yet, I’d like to take a pause here for us to ask a few harder questions about our ministries and whether they are always helping those we serve.
There are two other books I have read recently that have pushed me to think about this. They are When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself and Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. Both of these books catalyze the idea that sustainable change for people living in poverty comes not from the outside-in, but from the inside-out. They illuminate that the way in which over-reliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” for more aid. Both of these books give a stinging critique of the patronizing attitude in most of our philanthropic charitable giving and the public assistance models of our time. In the end, they call for a different, more creative, more empowering, more respectful, and more dignified approach.
In When Helping Hurts, a model similar as our Support Circle ministry is lifted up as a more empowering and dignified approach. This is a ministry where parishioners and a homeless family are matched up and begin a journey together of shared life of solidarity. Last month, we wrote a story of our current Support Circle doing this kind of empowering ministry. If you missed it, read it here. Another common suggestion in these books is that the “outsider’s” role is less about “handing out” and more about captivating and cultivating the passions, energy, and imagination of the people in need and creating avenues for opportunities and resources for people to realize their dreams.
I would point you to Sheila’s article on Jeanne Tedrow, a parishioner at St. Francis, who a couple decades ago began to explore a more empowering model of ministry with homeless families and those seeking affordable housing. This ministry has turned into the non-profit community development organization called Passage Home that strengthens families and neighborhoods that are facing severe socio-economic challenges. Passage Home’s programs and services are developed to break the cycle of poverty and have lasting effect. With over 1,000 families now living in self-sufficiency, this ministry is clearly living out this model of empowerment and dignity.
In light of these reflections this month, I’d ask us to consider some questions about our ministries at St. Francis:
- How are we working and living with those in need, listening to their cries, and asking how we can help?
- How can our ministries be less “outside-in” and more “inside-out”? Less about “hand-outs” and more about empowerment and turning passions into empowering possibilities?
- What are the ways we may unintentionally give off a patronizing attitude? Where do we sit on high, stand in judgment, and presume we know how people can fix themselves?
- Would we be able to tell the stories of the people we serve in our ministries? Do we find ourselves feeling more kinship with them when we do this?
- What are the kinds of thin
gs we need to do to feel more gratitude, more a sense of God’s mercy, and more a sense of humility?
- In what ways are we being called to be more creative and more empowering in the ways we are living out the mission of the gospel?