God’s Great Gift: Redeeming Missed Opportunities

Rhonda-HudsonI have had the honor and privilege of serving on the praise team at my church for many years now. As I was ministering one week ago, my eyes looked out, and I saw a man who I knew; for some reason, I focused on him, realizing I had not had a conversation with him in quite a while. He was serving as an usher at the back of the church. I meant to say hello to him at the end of the service, but by the time I exited the stage, he had already left.

On Saturday, less than a week later, I walked a 5K. When I opened Face book, I learned that he had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly  very early that morning. He had traveled out of town for the weekend, become ill, and died of a pulmonary embolism. What was even more shocking was that he was only 39 years old.

As I read the flood of posts remembering him, I learned about  the tremendous impact he had, not only for so many in our church, but also in our community. He had been a large, teddy-bear sized man who had a great big heart for children. He would fit his large frame into the primary chairs in the 1st -3rd grade room, and was an expert in relating to his pupils, and they loved him! He even took some of the boys fishing, and acted as a father figure to those who had no dad in the home. Indeed, he was also a great fisherman, and he shared his sense of humor and skill with a group of guys who loved him as much as if they were his natural family. He shared the fish he caught in an excellent gumbo with many in our church. He was a great man of God, full of integrity and fun.

On Sunday, the day after I learned of his death, I looked back in the direction that I had seen him last week. I realized the magnitude of the missed opportunity to talk with him to say thanks for all that he has meant to so many.

Although I am not able to do that with him, this missed opportunity has taught me to become more intentional about speaking my formerly unspoken genuine thoughts of my appreciation, love and support to those in my world. I have committed to using my voice more to express my genuine appreciation and encouragement, and trust God to remind me of how important it is.

I am thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning, and we all have an opportunity to share our genuine inner-most thoughts of appreciation and love to those who bring meaning to our lives.  Let’s all commit to take advantage of every opportunity the Lord allows, and not take this great gift for granted, as I did less than a week ago.

Rhonda is a professor in the School of Social Work at Union University, in Jackson, TN. She teaches several courses in the curriculum, including Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and Research & Statistical Methods. She formerly worked with HIV+ clients in Miami, FL before earning her PhD, and serving in academia. She is mom of three young men, Percy, Ronald and Ryan.

God’s Handiwork

My hands were weak, but I reached them out to feebler ones than mine, and over the shadow of my life, stole the light of a peace divine. Frances Harper

CallahanA0115This past year I worked in a nursing home providing psychotherapeutic support for the residents. My residents varied in capacity to process and articulate thoughts. Some were very hard of hearing, even with hearing aids. Often, residents did not have false teeth or did not wear them. Communication was garbled. Other times residents spoke so fast or low that I could barely hear them. Despite these difficulties or perhaps because of them, I had the opportunity to see God. God emerged through our process of connecting. Sometimes this connection had little to do with me other than showing up to partake in the Glory of the Lord. Let me share some stories. Although they may not seem miraculous, there was a deep richness in my experience that told me God was there.

One thing that revealed God to me was the unconditional positive regard my residents had for me even though they did not always remember me. I would usually see them once a week and even up to my last day, to my surprise, I still had a resident who was among the more cognitively intact ask me who I was. Our routine consisted of an introduction, statement of purpose, and light conversation that was followed by assessment and intervention. They usually accepted my intrusion into their lives. Sometimes they would even offer me food and drink. On the way out of a resident’s room one day she said, “I don’t know you but I love you.” Hearing this and saying it back became natural. These words never ceased to evoke joy when such moments of clarity made sense out of it all.

A resident asked me one day, “Are you the one who talks to people?” This woman spoke in a soft voice with difficulty due to cerebral palsy. It was so humbling. What grieved my heart was that I could not see her before our contract ended with that nursing home. Another day, a resident walked out of her room with me after our session. She linked her arm with mine as we walked down the hall. She told the nurse that I was her “listening friend.” I was so thankful for that. She had a lot to say, but words eluded her due to her progressive cognitive impairment. The best I could do was to respond to the emotional content of what she was saying. I learned so much about her, but it was not the content of her stories that moved me. Like the woman before, it was the sweetness of her spirit that shined through.

There were several residents who loved to sing religious hymns. One woman spoke so low and quick that I could barely hear her until one day she wanted to sing “In the Garden.” It was the only time I really heard her voice. We sang every verse. Another woman had to wear an oxygen mask connected to a large tank in her room. She was lonely but found comfort in the Lord. She would ask me if I knew particular religious hymns, which I usually did not know. Then she would sing them to me. Her raspy voice was weak and yet grew strong as she sang with all her heart. She told me about the importance of God and of having faith. One of the last things she wrote for me was “God is real.” She was a reflection of God for me.

One day when I was talking to the resident who called me her “listening friend,” she began to talk about her love for her family and their love for her. Despite her cognitive impairment, she was able to process how they demonstrated their love for each other. She ended by saying how much she loved God. We talked very briefly about how she knew God loved her. Our conversation meandered as cohesive thoughts would come and go. It had been some time, so I was preparing to go. The resident seemed to get upset. She stumbled over her words and then as I reached the door she was able to say with unusual clarity, “But I want to know what God would say.” I told her that I was not sure, but that I did know that God would say, “I love you.” She smiled and reached out her hand for mine.

With the end of this past year, my work at the nursing home also came to an end. I prepared my residents for my last day and wondered how many would grasp that I was leaving. One of my residents would often say, “I am 90 years old!” She inspired me for she accepted her physical decline and the reality of death with such grace. It was not uncommon for her to grab my hand, squeeze it, and slightly shake it at the end of our sessions. She would look at me with tenderness in her eyes, but would never say a word. This is how my last day ended. Before I left, I walked up to her to say “goodbye.” Once again, she grabbed my hand and we looked at each other. This time she reflected the finality of it all. I studied her face and marveled at the thought that the next time I would see her would be in heaven.

Ann M. Callahan has a doctorate in social work from the University of Tennessee with a license in clinical social work. She has over 22 years of social work related experience resulting in a range of clinical, administrative, educational, and research skills. Dr. Callahan teaches social work for the University of Kentucky. Her primary area of research is in the spiritual dimensions of the therapeutic relationship. Dr. Callahan is currently working on a book about spirituality and hospice social work for Columbia University Press. For more information, please visit http://dranncallahan.info/ or email dranncallahan@gmail.com.

Gloriously Ordinary: Christ-like Presence in the World

LopezHumphriesM1114As a practice of spiritual formation in the courses I teach, I will sometimes facilitate an exercise with the gospel stories.  I invite students to close their eyes and imagine that a story in the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John is a silent film (you know, like the old black and white Charlie Chaplain movies).  And together, as we envision the story of Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000 without the words, I ask them:  “How does Jesus’s life speak without words? What are his actions saying?  What is Christ’s presence communicating with those he engages?”

These questions often resonate with those of use who are social workers who find ourselves assessing, engaging and evaluating our interactions within the environment around us.  What is the nature of our presence, our best tool as social workers? How can our presence reflect the compassion, peace and grace of Christ?  These questions can be valuable not only to our social work practice, but in our daily engagement with the community and world that surrounds us.

Perhaps there are a few clues within Christ’s incarnational gospel story that can deepen our engagement with and our participation in reflecting shalom this season.  For Christ’s presence has the capacity to speak volumes to the nature of our presence as we engage the environment around us.  I’d like to offer three ways that we can engage the world:

  1. Present to the Ordinary: From the beginning, we gain an “insider’s perspective” into Christ’s presence. The obscure conditions of his manger birth show us that he was born into an environment where “there was no room at the inn.” Jesus once said, “the son of man has no place to lay his head.”  We realize that Christ did not spend much of his time engaging the prominent, mainstream elite of society.   The “Caesars” did not know who He was because his ministry was so provincial.  In fact, on the third day after He was resurrected, the women at the tomb mistook him for the gardener! As Andy Crouch observes, Jesus was “gloriously ordinary.”  Our presence in the world does not need to be announced with pomp and prominence.  Consider the simple but never simplistic act of empathy – to choose to be a quiet non-anxious listening presence in the life of another.  Such actions are the gifts we can bring and the light we can shed in the most ordinary ways, through every day interactions.

  1. Present to the Invisible:  As Christians we believe in being present to those who are invisible in our society. This is the reason I make every effort to get to know the names of the undocumented who work in the local bodegas (i.e. small corner store).  In many ways, the folks who prepare sandwiches and coffee six days/week are often invisible.  So I try to be intentional in getting to know them by name because even if in a small way, acknowledging their presence is also affirming the dignity of their humanity.  A fellow seminary professor, Dr. Cleotha Robertson, recently reminded me that, “the image of God democratizes human value.”  The forgotten and marginalized are often the people that Jesus engaged.

  1. Present to Generous Gestures: As social workers, we’re commonly known for “doing good in the world.” However, we are not as well known for being gracious recipients of goodness. Admittedly, I have often found myself and many of my colleagues, receiving acts of kindness with an awkward grimace, or some antsy sense of discomfort.  Perhaps if we run that silent film on Jesus, we will be reminded of the times when he openly received hospitality.  We need to be reminded that part of our discipleship is not only giving, but also receiving.  As in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrasing of Matthew 10:41-42:  “Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

Dr. Mayra Lopez-Humphreys is a native New Yorker and professor at Nyack College School of Social Work, with over 15 years of community engagement. Her academic, teaching, and  pastoral service have been motivated by a deep desire to participate in reflecting God’s Shalom here on Earth through building bridges of peace and justice across culture, religion, economic, and racial boundaries.

Praying for Our Enemies

EvansHWebMy counseling work continues to challenge and shape me in my understanding and expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   Entering into the hearts and minds of those who have been broken and rejected helps me see more clearly my own heart and mind, and challenges my beliefs and my own reactions to evil and suffering.

Recently, I received an email from one of my clients, a fifteen year old girl, who was six months into her healing process after being sexually abused by a trusted mentor.  She wrote:

So I started reading Luke and in chapter 6 it says in verse 27: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” And so this being God’s command, and I, wanting to be faithful to him, ask: how do I pray for my abuser??

I was humbled by this question, which reflected her bold, radical desire to receive counsel and pursue obedience in the face of the dark, painful reality of having been sexually abused by one she trusted, one who deceived and took advantage of her vulnerability.  She challenges all of us with an important question.  How DO we pray for those who have mistreated us?  How do we follow God’s command amidst experiences of injustice and our own emotional pain?

I encouraged her to search the Psalms, especially the ones written by David.  David was quite passionate when he prayed for his enemies.  Some of his prayers seem rather harsh and could be perceived as revealing a desire to inflict revenge on those who had mistreated him or were threatening his life.  However, a consistent theme reflected in David’s prayers are cries for protection and for justice.  He trusted God’s character and promises.  “But you, O Lord are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head….Arise, O Lord!  Save me, O My God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; You break the teeth of the wicked…Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you…But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;…and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.”  (Psalm 3:3, 7; 5: 10, 11)  David models prayers for protection and justice.   

Nehemiah also sets an example for how he prayed for his enemies. Several times we hear him pray “Remember me, Lord” (Nehemiah 5:14; 13:14, 25) . In response to his enemies’ opposition to his mission and work, Nehemiah prayed “Hear, O our God, for we are despised.  Turn back their taunts on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger…” (Nehemiah 4:4, 5)   Again, Nehemiah models an instinctual call in  prayer for justice, with an emphasis on his own heart’s response and faithfulness to God.   Remember me, Lord, by bringing justice and remember that I have remained faithful and obedient to you in the midst of this hostility.

Finally, how did Jesus pray for His enemies?  Enemies, which rejected Him, betrayed Him, denied His power and authority and hung him to a cross – enemies which include us all?   As he hung in pain, bearing the shame and punishment for the sin of those who will trust in Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  Jesus radically and passionately prayed that his enemies would be forgiven.

The Scriptures provide several examples for how my client might pray for her abuser.   Prayer for justice, prayer for her own response of obedience, and prayer for repentance—that her enemy would be broken by his sin and that it would bring him to a place of repentance before his Creator.  These bold, radical prayers can only be motivated and enabled by the One who hung from the cross and was then resurrected to new life, breaking the power of sin and death.   “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.”  Romans 5:10

Heather Evans, LCSW, has been a social worker for over 14 years.  She serves as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a private counseling practice in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. She is also Co-founder and Chair of Aftercare Team of VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking) Coalition in the Lehigh Valley, PA.  Heather has been a member of NACSW since 2001.

The Intersection of Race and Faith: Having the Courage of Joshua – Overcoming Personal Barriers to Black Church Outreach

HardyK0313I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to teach an elective course focused on religion at a prominent state university in Connecticut. One of the assignments for the course requires students to attend a worship service at three different churches throughout the semester and present about their experiences to the class. This week a student asked, in a typically roundabout manner, whether I thought she would be viewed suspiciously and would be unwelcome at any of the services. She said this because she is white and the congregations the students have to visit are predominantly Black. As the only non-Black student in the class, she worried that she would be uncomfortable. Her focus was on how she would feel in the space of the “other.” Her classmates shared that her concern is one they have to face every day except Sunday, even in their own university.

My student’s concern is not new to this class nor is it uncommon for many white people in general. However, as social workers and Christians, we are called on many levels to care for those who have so little, to assist those in their time of need, and to love those whom society has forsaken. We feed, clothe, shelter and heal in the name of God and in accordance with our professional Code of Ethics. These are noble aims and no other profession has these aims at its core in the same way as ours equipping us to render service across a diversity of populations wrestling with a variety of overwhelming challenges.

Yet some among us face trepidation and fear rejection when considering outreach to members of our own Christian family whose faces do not resemble our own. The Black Church, in particular, has had very little outreach from the social work profession despite the deep need for the services and support that professional social workers can provide. The Black Church continues to be the most important institution in the broader African-American community offering both spiritual and social support during times of crisis and they make a way out of no way by rendering service through the benevolence of well-intentioned congregants and providing resources drawn from the tithes and offerings of those who have just a little more to give. Black Churches in low-income communities have been de facto social service agencies for generations – doing the work of God on Sunday morning and the work of the social worker on Monday morning.

As Christian social workers, we can no longer cede this work solely to the Black Church because of the barriers we fear based on racial difference. We cannot allow struggling communities to scratch their way out of the financial, political, and social strife to which they have been relegated through institutional bigotry and prejudice because of individual bigotry and prejudice. We are called to lead like Joshua and to “fear not” whatever the unknown may be because we are walking in God’s purpose. We must act as ambassadors of our faith and our profession using our shared belief in helping those in need to make connections to Black Church clergy and congregations. We have resources that can be brought to bear in the ongoing fight for social and economic justice faced daily by those who are served by the Black Church. This will require, however, starting where these populations are and getting beyond our own personal barriers so that we can help the leaders and members of the Black Clergy lead their people to the promised land.

Kimberly Hardy, PhD, MSW is an assistant professor of Social Work at St. Joseph University in Hartford, Connecticut. She has been a frequent workshop presenter at NACSW conventions, and co-guest editor of an upcoming special issue of Social Work and Christianity focused on the Black Church and Social Reform. She has been a member of NACSW since 2010.