Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Not going far enough

Years ago, I got some advice from a workshop leader that has stood me in good stead each time I have gotten lost in my car. The advice was to go a little further, because chances were that I hadn’t gone far enough. Remember this the next time you’re lost in your car and drive just a bit further to test this advice for yourself.

Not going far enough is a common failing. I have encountered it in many places.

In Anti-Racism Training, we are often asked about the word “tolerance.” After all, the well respected and much admired Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has a long-standing project known as “Teaching Tolerance.” The SPLC’s reputation is well deserved. Their work is outstanding, and I support them as much as I can.

Tolerance is defined as “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others” by thefreedictionary.com, and “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry” by dictionary.com.

From a racial justice point of view, tolerance doesn’t go far enough. To be an anti-racist, i.e., to be someone who is actively interrupting racism, one must go beyond respecting the beliefs and practices of others or having a permissive attitude toward those beliefs and practices. One must practice resistance to racist ideas and actions by naming them and refusing to go along with them.

Several years ago, our family “adopted” an immigrant family from a former USSR republic. Because of a series of misrepresentations to the family by their original sponsoring organization, the family ended up as illegal immigrants in the U.S. Both father and mother were university educated individuals who had relied upon the word of American sponsors who made promises that weren’t kept. As we began to help this family traverse the paperwork, filing fees and bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system, it quickly became evident to us that merely helping with paperwork, driving them to appointments and paying fees wasn’t going far enough.

Living in the limbo and fear of being undocumented aliens and the cultural divide of navigating a (to them) foreign government’s bureaucracy often caused our friends to make the wrong choices in approaching the next steps in the long process to become documented workers and legal residents. Even though we told our friends to call on us when they needed help, pride and a desire not to impose on us meant that they often tried to “go it alone.” We began to realize that it was necessary for us to walk with our friends each step of their journey, not just to complete the paperwork or to pay the fees, but to give them the courage that comes from knowing that they would not be abandoned by us, their sole source of support.

The experience of and with our adopted family made me think about how our advocacy organizations often don’t go far enough. I do not fault the organizations for lack of caring. Throwing money at cases in and of itself is not enough either. I have learned that the methodology that works best in helping people to make the journey from being undocumented aliens or from any other impoverished or disadvantaged condition requires companioning. We used to call it case management when there were fewer cases and the workloads of the case workers was realistic and manageable. Companioning is hard, inconvenient, messy work. Dealing with people and their needs is unpredictable work, colored by people’s inconsistent and sometimes noncompliant behavior.

Recently I’ve been paying attention to some newly identified church leaders who aspire to and/or are being developed for specific roles. In some cases the individuals come from cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds that are not of the dominant group in the church, which is primarily White and Eurocentric. I am seeing the same need for companioning (something more deeply relational than shepherding) in these cases as I saw in our adopted immigrant family’s case. It’s almost like there is a need for a cultural translation or interpretation going back and forth in both directions in order to facilitate a complete communication process. When I’ve talked with each “side” of the process, things like fear of being perceived as stupid on the part of the individuals in development and fear of misspeaking on the part of those in authority come to the fore. At the very least, additional skills in how to engage difficult conversations around tough subjects are required.

I realize that I have raised several issues here without offering possible solutions for them. Solutions are beyond the scope of this writing. What I do want you, dear reader, to think about is not going far enough and how you will know to go further the next time you are on the road – whether in your car or with someone who needs a companion.

1 comment:

Laurie Gudim and Rosean Amaral said...

Yes, yes, yes! Companioning is hard, messy work, but IMHO it is the only thing that does indeed make a difference. Thanks for the reminder of this!