Do You See the Crowds?

SaundersE0814I have this ideal that social work, particularly Christian social work, should be about helping people, making a difference, and changing lives.  I found this profession after living through my own tough life experiences.  I’m the kind of person for whom being a Christian and going to church brings meaning to my life, but my faith is more real when it is lived out through action.  When I was doing direct practice, I found the experience of working with hurting people very rewarding and a direct extension of my faith.

I believe that being a Christian is, at its heart, being an imitator and follower of Christ.  How many times do we read in scripture that Jesus saw someone—or a crowd—and had compassion for them?  It’s what he did every day of his ministry.  He met them at their point of need, treated them with love, spoke truth, and went on to address their underlying needs.  He loved them for who they were, but called them to become more.  And he loves us and calls us to become more.  That’s what I call Christian social work!

But what do I spend much of my time doing?  I’m busy with fundraising, measuring outcomes, budgets, accreditation, personnel issues, board and committee meetings, and so on.  So what if my work at times seems mundane?  Does what I do still matter if I’m not meeting with clients every day?  There’s no question that it does.  When I am skillful and effective, I bring greater resources and new approaches to dealing with my community’s challenges.  Because the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness are much bigger than any agency or program, it takes even harder work, more prayer, and more partners to make a difference.

I’m finding a new calling in Matthew 9:36-38, which says:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”


My eyes may be more focused on crowds than individuals these days, and my work may be more focused on calling and equipping laborers, but at heart, it’s still about serving that scared, hungry, desperate person that Jesus looked at and loved, and realizing that’s how God still loves me.

Eric Saunders received his MSW from Indiana University, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a sometimes adjunct instructor of social work at Messiah College, and serves as executive director for New Hope Ministries in south-central Pennsylvania.  In 2014, Eric was honored to receive the Frank Grady Outstanding Professional Award for human service.

Do They Know I’m a Christian By My Love?

Helen

Thirty years ago this month, I stood at an altar and pledged my love and life to my incredible spouse.  We chose a song with this closing line:  “They will know we are Christians by our love,” to testify that day of our love for Christ, for each other, and for a hurting world.  We believed that our marriage would multiply our ministries, our lives of service.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that concept this summer so many years later and the scripture it is based on: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another” (John 13:35).  I pray others have seen Christ’s love in us.  I am concerned that, as part of the church, the body of Christ, it sometimes seems that the church is not really known for love these days as much as for judgment, for elitism, for condemnation, for rejection, as though it is ours to do the sorting of wheat from chaff, or goats from sheep.  I am also guilty of judging more than loving.

I was in our nation’s capital this last week and attended a workshop presented by two pediatricians whose specialty area is adolescence.  They taught about assessment and intervention with suicidal teens and substance using teens and GLBT teens.  And the physicians taught the strengths perspective model, not the traditional medical model of identifying pathology.  They included alarming statistics about suicide rates, particularly in GLBT youth.  One said that he had been an ER physician and an ICU physician and that he had saved more lives by being a gay affirming doctor than all of the patient lives he had saved in the ER and ICU.  He defined gay affirming by saying that he loves each patient, just as they are. He listens to them without judgment. He identifies their strengths, what is right with them, their resilience, their care for others, the things about each one that is special and admirable and he tells them that. So they trust him to tell him their pain and health risks and concerns.  His instruction to the  interns and residents who train with him is that every medical work up and consultation they bring to him starts with an identifying sentence, i.e. “Michael is a 17 year old white male with pneumonia and”…..then the second sentence….”and I love him because…” Years go Dallas Holm sang a song with the line:  “I saw the Lord…and He saw me.”  These teens are seen by their doctors; really seen, not judged.  Loved,  just as they are.

As I prepare for the NACSW conference in November and presenting with my colleague, Jon Singletary, a workshop on best practices with GLBT persons, I have been nervous about the controversy this conversation may generate. NACSW is interested in generating more light than heat. I have worried that I might be judged for not being “Christian enough” or not representing my University with integrity.  My husband has worried about incivility at the workshop….i.e. harsh responses from my peers and colleagues.

One participant in the DC conference I just attended, a conference for persons concerned with military connected children, noted that the doctors I mentioned earlier presented the first such workshop at this conference and thanked them for their courage.  There was applause.  At military child education conference included a presentation by doctors in the armed services where love was the theme and where there was courage speak about their care for persons who have been judged and marginalized by….me….and perhaps by you.

Jesus is my model of courage. He ate with sinners and saints, tax collectors and poor fishermen, prostitutes and priests, lepers and leaders.  His courage cost him.  His courage gave us….everything…including courage.  Let the conversation of love begin.

Helen is a social worker with experience in child care, foster care and adoptions, and hospice and grief.  She is celebrating 44 years as a Christ follower and believes her relationship with Jesus Christ to be the most important information about her.  Helen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Baylor University where she teaches advanced practice in the Physical and Mental Health Concentration.  She has been a member of NACSW since 1999. 

To Every Thing There is a Season: Christian Social Workers’ Secret Weapon for Renewal

DrummRWeb

Have you ever gotten to the place in your work life that you wondered to yourself, “Why am I doing this? This is just not worth it!” Maybe it was after a bad day, a tough week, a difficult month, or an overwhelming year. I’ve just gone through a season of “WHY?” and as many of you know, that can be a painful place to be. But the experience is part of being human and in the field of social work, it is somewhat predictable. We expect tough times and seemingly insurmountable challenges. We anticipate seasons of difficulty.

In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon discusses the various “seasons” of life and having a season for everything. Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a season to do social work with your whole heart, soul, and strength, and a season to step back, reflect, and renew.”

Last fall, during a particularly foggy period in my work life, I listened to a podcast by Christian writer and speaker, Bill Hybels, on this passage in Ecclesiastes. Hybels suggests that Solomon’s message for us is that to grow as Christians we should: (1) recognize the season we are in; (2) determine what the Lord wants us to learn from the season; and then (3) “move on” to the next season of our lives (Are You Satisfied Part 2, 2013).

I think this is particularly true for Christian social workers. Truth be told, I had been engaged in a season of “How much can one person possibly do (all good things, of course) and still survive?” for several years. The season of crazy over-commitment had gone on long enough and the Lord was leading in a new direction and to a new season. It was time to move on, to engage in self-care, and regain a genuine interest in the welfare of others. I realized with all that I was taking on, deep in my heart, I really didn’t care like I used to. Of course I continued to pretend to care. I had the “right” empathetic responses, but I had stopped having that passion for loving people that is so vital in providing service to others.

Understanding the “seasons” of life and how to navigate them has helped me take a step back this year from feeling overwhelmed, burdened, and at times wondering if I am making any difference at all in the world. Solomon’s reflections on the seasons of life reminded me why I ultimately do what I do and to whom I am accountable as I use my time and talents on this earth.

The Ecclesiastes passage reassures me that there is a reason for the season, I can learn something from every season I find myself in, and when I have learned the lessons I need to, I can confidently move on. Taking this quiet time of reflection provided me with a new perspective on that painful season and allowed me to come to my work life renewed and ready to serve once again.

Dr. Rene Drumm writes from Collegedale, Tennessee. She has served in higher education for over 20 years and has published research on small social work programs, substance abuse, social capital, sexual orientation, and domestic violence. Rene is a member of NACSW’s Board of Directors, and has been a member of NACSW since 2001. 

Until the Lion Has Its Historian, the Hunter Will Always Be the Hero

MustainH2013

Let me begin by sharing that I am a licensed social worker and also an ordained Baptist minister. As you will no doubt discover in this blog post, the complexities of how I identify myself are many.

For me personally – and this may not be for all church social workers – I identify within the church as a minister, and outside the church as a social worker simply because these are the titles that are recognized by each sector respectively. At times this dual identity is complicated, yet it remains beautiful to me and is essential to my call.

Every minister has his or her “thing,” you know, something that minister refers to time and time again that after a while begins to sounds like a broken record. You can almost predict that each time this minister opens his/her mouth, this ”thing” will make an appearance. Sometimes we don’t mind as much because some ministers’ “things” seem easy enough to do – or so we think: “love God,” “love others,” or “be kind.”

But other “things” are more difficult: “be generous,” or “love as I have loved you.”  I have learned a few of my own pastor’s “things,” many of which I have grown to love. When praying over newly dedicated babies, our pastor prays that God “will not give them an easy life, but a good life.”  Placing his finger, sticky with salt, over the lips of a newly raised body from the baptismal waters, he proclaims, “you are the salt of the earth.” He then sends them out of the water with a candle proclaiming that they are also now “the light of the world.”

These “things” are no longer just euphemisms, but have become a part of our congregation’s shared story. My “thing,” for now anyways, is “story.” We each have one. However, we often miss how our stories connect with each other: how your story influences my story, and my story influences yours. We belong to one another and it is through sharing our stories that we come to realize this important truth.

The greatest story of all tells us that each of us are made in the likeness of God and that we are, in fact, our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers. Jesus liked stories, so much so that he taught through story. In fact, our written Scriptures were shared orally through story decades before they was formally written down.

I hope you will be kind and allow me to share one story that has influenced me a great deal, and that I hope will send you searching for your own stories of influence and deep connection. For the last four years I have traveled to Ghana, West Africa, with Baylor University. So many stories have been shared and created there that Ghana feels like home to me now.

At the end of our time in Ghana each year we traveled to the Cape Coast with our friends and visit a castle, one that was once used primarily for the exportation of human beings during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Silently we walked through the museum that displays shackles used to bind the hands of men, women and children, and examined maps of boats that were strategically packed with humans for maximum capacity.

Each year we were lead first through the dungeons of the male slaves. Standing in the dark with the faint scent of mildew, vomit, and feces in our nostrils, we learned that right above us sat the church used at that time. A moment not easily forgotten, I wondered to myself how people could worship God in that church when there were others literally living in hell right below them.

But before that thought had a chance to fully settle in my heart we were off, this time to visit the dungeon that held women and children. On our way there, we walked through a tiny cell used to hold those who rebelled: women who refused to give up their babies, men who refused to lose their dignity, and children of God who refused the sexual advances of others.

Once inside the women’s and children’s dungeon, I would see a stairwell leading to the captains room, realizing these steps were strategically placed to connect the most powerful to the most vulnerable. We walked through the living quarters of the Dutch or Portuguese or English, and look out the window to an ocean so blue, so beautiful, so calming, wondering how could this all be. Finally we made our way back down to the lower level and went through a door labeled “The Door of No Return,” so named because for all who left through this door, none ever made it back.

Each year while visiting this castle I would rediscover that my story is somehow connected with the stories of those I was learning about, even though they were written long before I was born. I would realize that their history was mine and mine theirs; it was our history, our story. Artist Micah Bourne filmed a powerful poem, “Thank God for Evolution,” on location at this same slave castle.

I share this with you because until we have moments like these, moments of deep connection with others, it’s hard to become the empathetic and loving people we are called to be. We desire to be advocates for the most vulnerable in our society but until we discover the connection that links us all we can only be sympathetic responders, which is something entirely different.

If you have read this far you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with social work and the advancement of our profession. My answer is: everything! When leaving the castle I would notice each year a photograph of what appeared to be writing on the wall, which reads, “Until the lion has it’s historian the hunter will always be the hero.”

As social workers, our profession demands that we give each person the dignity that is due to her/him, and that we seek justice where injustice thrives. We need to begin sharing each others’ stories, so that at the end of the day, it is not the hunter that wins, but it is us, all of us.

May we be a profession that strives to find an inter connectedness that heals us and binds us together. And like any good minister I close us with a hearty, “AMEN!

Heather M. is Minister of Missions at Wilshire Baptist Church in Texas. She has been a member of NACSW since 2012.

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Resiliency in Christ

Rhonda Harrison

Jesus Christ developed my resilience, allowing me to remain an ethical professional who puts my students’ first.  Jesus Christ built my resilience by telling me who I am, who I work for, what my responsibility is to other people, and giving me a support group.

I currently work in an office with other MSWs.  For most of my career, though, I’ve been the only social worker on site, working with colleagues who don’t understand social work. Laypersons sometimes believe social workers are able to fix any and all problems quickly, are able to change negative and longstanding behaviors overnight, and have unlimited availability and tolerance.  Whenever I fell short in any of these areas, both my clients and colleagues would become critical, in ways both obvious and subtle, undermining my professional self-confidence and making a difficult job burdensome.  When I remember that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), those burdens lift.

God made me, and promises to ease my burdens (Matthew 11:28-30; John 6:29).  When facing an impossible deadline at work, I’ve often told God that He had to help me get the work done, and He did.  One day, I gained the ability to decide to be peaceful, after considering what God has done for me.  I was able to say to myself, “Why get all anxious when you know that at the end of the day, God will have the paperwork in on time?”

When people make unreasonable demands, I remember that ultimately, I work for God.  I work for His approval & glory, which motivates me to maintain a standard of excellence despite the challenges.  In all situations I can take my anger, doubt, needs, fear, and anxiety all to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6), which protects me from the consequences of gossip and negativity.  Having a God that will reward me for my work & settle disputes on my behalf allows me to live in the present, do my work – and enjoy it  (Colossians 3:17 and Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

When I’m too upset to keep the conversation just between me and Jesus, He’s given me a safe space to tell my side of the story – the church.  Not the whole church, but the intimate group of friends that I’ve been with in Bible Study and prayer over the years.  They’ve rejoiced and cried with me as I’ve gone through my ups and downs at work.  Thank God, right now my work life is on the upside.

Both Marilyn Lammert and Christena Cleveland, social worker & social psychologist, respectively, wrote articles that I believe are related to resiliency (see the links below). Marilyn writes from a secular perspective, and Christina takes a Christian viewpoint.   Both mention the value of community.  Although it might be natural to want to isolate during stressful times, it’s not always the best idea.

Rhonda E. Harrison has been a social worker for 16 years and a member of NACSW for 16 years. Rhonda is also an Advisor, Educator and Abolitionist who writes a personal blog, “If I Knew then What I Know Now.”