Peter and I had a great conversation this morning at Corromandel Valley Uniting Church with a number of Church leaders interested in how we can walk alongside people in our congregations and communities who are struggling with bumpy roads in their mental health.
Those who came did so with some really powerful questions around the role that a community (such as a Church congregation) can have in supporting the work done by medical and other professional services (such as Baptist Care and Uniting Communities).
We shared about times when we had seen genuine flourishing of people experiencing persistent and chronic mental health concerns.
Some of the characteristics that we recognised across all of these experiences were:
- People experiencing ongoing mental health concerns were connected with others in the community in areas of mutual strength and passion (golfing, fishing, gardening) rather than out of areas of one person’s deficit and need.
- These individuals were encouraged and supported to contribute to the community in a meaningful and rewarding way. Often a great deal of flexibility was needed to support this and growth in capacity was very often witnessed over time.
- A culture in which a spectrum of mental health could be experienced became normalised.
- Individuals were seen as people and friends rather than projects or clients. Along with a recognision that we are doing this alongside mental health professionals rather than fulfilling this role ourselves.
- Specific individuals (or small groups of individuals) stepped up by becoming informed friends but of equal significance were deliberate community frameworks (ie. intentional meals and gatherings) existing around these individuals to help support and sustain these friendships over a long time (knowing that this is not about “curing”). This way supported individuals don’t feel like “it will all come down to me”; “I’m doing it on my own”.
- A true culture of risk-taking and a willingness to accept what otherwise might be deemed as failure. (More about that here).
If you are interested in participating in a similar conversation around this we are hoping to host similar conversations in the northern and western regions of Adelaide in the new year. If you would like to host us please contact me.
Baptist Care will also be providing training in the area in 2015.
At risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon I couldn’t give up the opportunity to celebrate the beautiful example of community that was expressed in the “I’ll Ride With You” hashtag last night.
My heart truly soared.
Yesterday many of our neighbours would have had due reason to feel frightened of how strangers in the community might respond to them. Could have felt concerned that they would be ostracised purely because of the way they dress or the colour of their skin. And yet the steady stream of #IllRideWithYou offers presented an alternative to this fear.
It didn’t offer a program or money- what it did offer was to stand alongside in friendship and solidarity.
And in the middle of Advent I, with many others, was struck with the resonance this holds with the birth of Jesus; the incarnation. God choosing to set aside power and privilege in order to get alongside us as an equal- to become less than our equal -to walk alongside us in our suffering, to experience life as we do, in the ultimate #IllRideWithYou
This is what we need more of- walking alongside those who are most vulnerable in our community. More people willing to walk alongside those at risk of being marginalised, isolated or victimised.
Of course we need to go further and work towards a culture in which marginalisation, isolation and racism are no longer present- but in the meantime we must walk alongside.
And not just for the length of a train ride or a bus route but in general and for life.
In the current climate our Muslim and middle-eastern neighbours will continue to need offers of walking (or riding) alongside and I hope that rather than being a one-off offer it might be (as Father Bob tweeted) our finest communitarian hour.
I also wonder to whom else we could extend this offer to ride alongside?
And what might that riding alongside look like?
One of the most profound lessons I have learned in my time working with communities is this:
Whoever comes are the right people.
Sounds simple, but so often it goes against our natural instincts.
It certainly goes against my natural personality type in every way.
But it is true.
When planning a workshop or a community consultation/co-creation event we often have an idea of who should be in the room- whether that be specific names of individuals that we want to be there or just a number of people present that would signal success for us.
Quite often I have had events that I was arranged to facilitate canceled because either the number isn’t right or a key individual is unable to attend.
I understand the desire behind this. We really want our key leaders involved; or we really want a wide cross section of the community involved. And often we do need to work toward this… at subsequent meetings or alternative gatherings.
The challenge with this delay is that, in my experience, often this false start has happened not just once but a number of times. Then the momentum fails, people get disheartened and nothing happens at all.
That why I love the image at the top:
Sometimes the most important thing we can do, is it to begin.
And to begin with whoever shows up, whoever is available, whoever is present (be that 3 or 200).
I have come to believe this is the right things to do for a number of reasons:
- This is honouring of those who have made themselves available (who are often those most passionate, ready and willing for the task anyhow).
- It sets the activity in motion which then allows for others to get on board. Sometimes those reluctant-joiners (who may even be those we, as leaders, are most keen to have on board) need to see something begin, to know you are serious, and then they will jump on board. Often they have experienced false starts in the past and are (even subconsciously) skeptical.
- Busy people will always be busy. If you wait for all the busy people to be free you will never begin.
- If we wait for the “right” people we often do not allow people to become the “right” people.
- Starting small is good.
Smaller groups of people create energy faster than large groups.
Small groups are scalable (if asked to invite only one person to the next meeting
you have instantly doubled)
Smaller groups, if managed well, take greater personal responsibility for tasks
and have greater potential for accountability.
So next time you arrange a gathering, call together a group, start to dream…. and then people begin to cancel (sickness, holidays, other commitments) or just don’t show up. Don’t stop. Don’t postpone. Don’t worry or become disheartened. Remind yourself: Whoever comes are the right people.
Last week I posted about the challenge I felt from Brad Chilcot’s call to appreciate the polarities in people by starting out from areas of mutuality rather than adversary.
But this wasn’t all I learned from that conversation.
My other big take away could be summed up in the words of one of our participants:
“We are one community standing together- not two groups trying to understand one another” -Karen
This language of reciprocity (a willingness for authentic exchange) and of mutual hospitality (offering what is most valuable to me; to you) came out in all the stories we heard on the day. Rather than being seen as “other” or “person in need” the significance of being appreciated, honoured and empowered to contribute in and to community were hugely significant elements. These were stories of movements lead both in voice and deed (not just consulted) by those they are seeking to empower. This can not be underestimated.
The most challanging words of the day (for me) came when one participant voiced:
“At what point do people stop being ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ and … any other label?”
It was a brilliant question and I think the answer we came to was: people only stop being “other” when they become friend. When “they” gain a name, an identity and a significant place in our lives, our homes and our community of belonging.
What does this mean for your community?
If you were at our gathering were there any other significant learnings that stood out for you?
I sat down to write a summary of key learning taken from Friday’s Faith in Action workshop and yet before I do that (in my next post) I want to share with you the manner that workshop played into a deeper story of learning that was going of for me last week. This learning (or re-learning) began when scrolling through pictures from the recent White Ribbon Clergy Oath. I was confronted among these images to see the face of a man signing the pledge whose opinions of women have left me feeling quite victimised. It was painful for me to see because I suspected that this particular individual was seeing this pledge as a promise not to physically hit a woman while not recognising that a culture that subordinates women is a culture in which violence can survive. Or to quote Victoria’s chief commissioner, Ken Lay, in a recent guardian article on domestic violence:
“…attitudes show that we perceive women differently than men and by differently I mean we perceive them as less valuable. In order to stop a problem we have to tackle the cause.”
Inwardly just seeing this image caused quite a violent response in me that was still not quelled by speaking with a friend who challenged me that I must celebrate the small steps and that this signing of the pledge offered us an opportunity for the broader and deeper conversation. I was challenged again the following day, however, at Friday’s Faith in Action event as we looked at discovering the opportunities and gifts we may be missing from refugees and other minority groups in our communities. Brad Chilcott (of Activate Church and Welcome to Australia) challenged us to appreciate the polarities in people. When speaking of the opposition he has faced for allowing those politicians who have openly supported policies that have marginalised refugee communities to none the less stand side by side with him at the front of the Walk Together events; Brad said he chose to start with the areas of congruence and invite dialogue from there instead of taking a purely adversarial approach.
“We need to celebrate and amplify the light” -Brad Chilcott
This is much like the principle of “Bright Spots” that I try to espouse in Community Development. Rather than fighting against what is broken we can often gain a lot more energy and momentum by finding those (even small) spots of goodness and then work to amplify, celebrating and duplicating those. Brad spoke about his desire to provide a positive voice within a highly divisive issue, calling out the best in Australia and to begin the conversation with powerful questions such as:
“How would you like your home to be described?”
So I am challenged anew to consider how to balance a strong stance against language, behaviour and attitudes that create a culture that allows for marginaisation and still work in community with those who demonstrate these poor behaviours, language and attitudes by finding those places of congruence (those “bright spots”) from which to begin a relational discussion.
Can our pity for the stranger actually get in the way of us loving them?
This is the thought that has been making a home in my mind this week. In the lead up to Christmas I witness a lot of people who feel especially sorry for those “less fortunate than them” at a time that many people experience as a joyful one. This is understandable and commendable and the result is a lot of charity.
Talking to a colleague this week I expressed a concern that this pity shown to a stranger at Christmas did not seem to often equate to a more concerted effort to befriend people experiencing disadvantage during the year. If it did so then, come Christmas, we would be able to provide support to a friend rather than charity to a stranger.
She challenged me that love for the stranger is a very humble and Biblical behaviour. So I am happy to concede I could be wrong. Feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments below and in the meantime I will continue to ponder…
One thing I am sure of, however, is:
We must not let our feelings of pity get in the way of recognising, calling out and celebrating the gifts people have to contribute to our community.
Looking past the labels (poor, disabled, refugee) and considering the gifts (poet, chef, priest) is an important and ongoing exercise for all of us in community.
This Friday we (Faith in Action) will be running a workshop on discovering the opportunities and gifts we may be missing from refugees and other minority groups in our communities. I am looking forward to work shopping this with some individuals who are highly committed to and participating in this very work.
There is still space to join us if this interests you:
Details: Friday 28th November 2014
- 10-12noon Presentations and Discussion with speakers
- 12-1pm Conversation over shared lunch
- 1-3pm What principles are operating here and how might we apply them in our ministry setting?
- Venue – The Welcome Centre 100 Drayton Street, Bowden – the corner of Drayton Street and Hawker Street (look for the Activate SA building!)
More info HERE
Over the last week my Facebook feed has featured a number of articles criticising the most recent “Band-Aid 30″ version of “Do the know it’s Christmas?”. The criticisms have hit on a number of faults including inaccuracy of lyrics (ie. there will be plenty of water and snow in Africa this Christmas) as well as inciting African nationals who have received it as patronising and a perpetuation of negative stereotypes of Africa.
For me one of the most significant criticism is that it undermines the efforts of native African singers who have already produced a song to raise funds for the same purpose: Africa Stop Ebola – Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and others. Geldolf and others involved in Band Aid could have used their influence to promote this song and see funds flowing back into Africa in two ways!
Seeing this once again got me thinking about the nature of aid and community work both internationally and locally. Especially as we come up to Christmas time! Christmas is a time when charities are often struggling to find room for all the good-willed people wanting to help and to off load their well-meaning goods (which charities need all year long but for which Christmas often provides a flood for the struggling resource drought throughout the rest of the year)
The good news is that we can learn from Bob’s mistakes:
- We can learn that when our efforts to provide charity undermine (by their timing, volume or nature) the capacity or willingness of individuals or communities to respond to crisis themselves then we are doing more harm than good.
- We can learn that both in Australia and internationally the best recovery and development projects come from the communities themselves. And we can learn to support communities in this work- economically, by facilitation and through advocacy.
- We can learn to watch our language! Language that evokes pity, stereotypes and labels is not helpful. It dis-empowers, undermines accountability and creates a self-fullfilling prophecy (as most communities live up to their reputations)- my favourite article on this is called “Aiding is Abetting”.
So as Christmas approaches I’m asking you to write these rules on your heart.
And if I might- suggesting a few little ways of doing it differently:
- Why not, instead of volunteering in a Soup Kitchen this Christmas, befriend someone who is struggling and have a meal together in which you all contribute in some way?
- Instead of packing a box of toys made in sweatshops in Asia and sending it to a struggling economy in Africa why not purchase something made by an African women’s co-operative as a gift for a loved one thereby helping that mother buy her own gift for her child this Christmas.
- Build a strong community- get to know your neighbours. Resilient communities are the best poverty fighting tool we have.