Confession and Compassion

Hopefully not too much navel-gazing.

Maybe it’s the election, or the extraordinary ordination or talking with folks struggling to find or afford housing, but I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately. With the exception of the fact that I’m a woman, I am a member of every privileged majority group I can think of: white, straight, protestant, middle class, citizen of the United States.

I confess that although I like to consider myself an ally of folks who are disenfranchised, I have constantly run up against my own privilege and preconceptions. From really reflecting, years ago, about why I hit the power-lock on my car door (was it because the man outside the car was unfamiliar, or because his skin was black?), to realizing, weeks ago, the words that come out of my mouth (did I really invite the person in a wheelchair to “stand up and speak to the congregation”?), I’m on a constant journey of learning, and I can only hope that others are patient with me as I continue to stick my feet in my mouth and receive lessons in humility.

I think I have most significantly struggled to make sure that my advocacy for others does not become patronizing or paternalistic. It’s very easy to do for others in a way that appropriates them as a cause rather than respects them as persons. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in my desire to minister with folks who live in poverty here in the States and abroad. In Seminary, I met a wonderful man, Matthew, who was a phenomenal artist and a decent prophet and lived on the streets of Boston. My initial response was to try to save Matthew somehow or fix his problem, and he was the one who told me that what he needed more than anything else was for me to listen to his story and treat him with dignity. Matthew’s patience with me, especially when my overzealous attempts to ‘help’ were borderline offensive to him, taught me a great deal, and half a dozen years later his words shape a large part of how I interact with people in general, most particularly folks who might not be in the same position I am in one way or another.

This is why the Adopta Una Familia program I have participated in is so powerful. The program focuses on building community and relationship as primary, and houses as a secondary thing. Here are folks living in conditions that I had previously not been able to imagine, and yet after sharing a home, meals, laughter and tears for a week, I could not pity them or appropriate them as a cause. I could only love and respect them. From that place, when we worked side by side, we built not just houses but homes together, not because I could save or fix them, but because we care about each other and the community.

In some comments, Morgan, another wonderful man I’ve met recently, has been talking with me about the housing problem in Montpelier, and what he said really struck a chord with me, really tied together my past learning about not being paternalistic or appropriative and my experience in Ecuador with my current hopes about housing in Montpelier.

Morgan wrote:

I also may be able to help […] with possibly helping to get interested citizens and fellow travelers on board maybe; as long as there will be both equal and mutual standing for all involved, with no one individual or group being a greater expert on these matters than anyone else, just fellow citizens coming together to raise a barn so-to-speak, each with their own expertize to help build a community project: i.e., community itself. The housing will end up being secondary, although crucial as it is in its own right. […]

As far as the planning segment goes, actually my faith was not in the planning so much as what can sometimes happen when people come and then seriously pull together to problem solve and then end up building and creating community and from that help find ways to meet unmet needs of members of that community for the common good and betterment of everyone concerned.

That’s it exactly! Exactly what is needed wherever we seek to ‘help other people.’ Those who would want to help have to instead listen and learn and build community around the subject, getting to know the people involved as real people, not numbers or case studies or projects or causes. Listening to the folks involved will not only empower them (rather than making the ‘helpers’ feel good, which may be part of what we’re after when we’re honest), but, as Morgan points out, will have the added benefit of being more effective because listening allows for learning from another’s expertise. Suddenly, I imagine an approach to the crisis of housing in Montpelier not as a committee of church people and politicians and agencies, but as a series of gatherings with those who live without housing or on the brink of houselessness. Much more like the Ecuador program, what if we build respect and relationships and community first, and let the housing flow from that? Tough for this goal-oriented impatient person!

Even tougher: don’t let me go appropriating Morgan’s good idea.

See? Still learning.

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