The Call to Reconciliation

ChristensenA0816CEUThe recent deaths of African-American persons during interactions with police officers has awakened the nation to the persistent racial imbalance in our country. The sheer disregard of life causes me deep anguish and, quite frankly, leaves me with mixed feelings about our country’s moral compass. Close to home, in Dallas, TX, retaliation and more violence was one man’s answer to his doubts. In the face of such horror and violence, to what are we called as Christian social workers and practitioners?

As an African-American woman and macro practitioner, I constantly wrestle with my response to these deadly encounters. Fear and anger rise up swiftly, leaving little room to process. I battle alongside community members to grasp what pervasive death to  brown bodies means for us as a community and as individuals. I have come to the painful, yet joyous, conclusion that as Christians in social work, we must pick up the heavy mantle that the Apostle Paul describes as becoming  ”Ministers of Reconciliation.”

In 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, Paul outlines the call to the Ministry of Reconciliation:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.


 As Christians in social work, we are compelled to respond to injustice with the love of Christ. We can easily become calloused when we learn of new tragedies each day, but our hearts must remain soft. We can remain empathetic because we know that God weeps over the injustices in the world (e.g. Isaiah 61, Psalm 103:6).

Further, we no longer view people or events from a worldly perspective. Though the world tells us to point fingers and place blame, we now have the power to withhold judgement and trust God’s justice. Withholding judgment does not equate to silence, but it means allowing the Spirit of God to intervene on our behalf.

Finally, we are not alone in the work of reconciliation. God set the stage for reconciliation when he sent Christ to reconcile the world to the Divine. The blueprint is already drawn.

In this passage, we see both the pain and joy of reconciliation. We are now held to a higher standard of living. Reconciliation demands that we emulate Christ himself, even at the expense of our own feelings. This includes times when we aren’t personally affected by the situations we learn about. Reconciliation also demands that we remain committed to the message of grace and truth. The work of reconciliation is not a one-time, town-hall discussion; it is a slow, methodical process that calls us to commit to the on-going task of reconciliation and to each other.

Social work demands the same. The Code of Ethics requires that we respect the dignity and worth of all people, value the importance of human relationships, embody integrity, service, social justice, and competence — all of which are enhanced by the blood of Christ.

Racial justice will only happen when we believe that reconciliation is truly at the center of God’s heart. We must believe that learning to be a reconciler is a part of His divine plan for our redemption. With that in mind, we can step faithfully into the work of reconciliation with great hope for the future.

Alexis Christensen is a community organizer with Waco Community Development in Waco, TX. She received her Bachelor’s of Political Science and Masters of Social Work from Baylor University. She enjoys reading and traveling the world with her husband. Alexis has been a member of NACSW since 2012.

Just Be

AcostaKLight0716I was going through some of my old journals deciding just what to write, and I kept coming back to the same message: “Just Be”

Having a curious nature, I decided to look up the word “be” in an online dictionary:

Be - ˈbē

  • To exist; to have real existence.

  • To occupy a place.

  • To connect a noun to an adjective that describes it.

So what does it all mean? Verbs are action words. It’s a command to do something. Over and over in my life I was instructed to “just be”. Be good, be faithful, be quiet, and be still – the list goes on and on. What did it mean? How does one simply “be” if you don’t know who you are or where you are supposed to be? The world is full of those who will happily tell you where you should go, what you should do, who you should be friends with. I didn’t know who I was. I had not yet found where I belonged. My question to God was always, “be what?”

One day back in 2003 a dear friend decided I had been cooped up in my house for far too long and needed some fresh air. I was a single mom at the time and it was the weekend my daughter went to spend with her father. I had nothing better to do, and agreed to go on a quiet drive. We had no plans to go anywhere specific, just drive. We ended up near some old abandoned railroad tracks. This was a place my friend liked to go when he needed time to think. While walking along the tracks an old railroad spike caught my eye. It was half buried by sand. I picked it up, brushed it off, and continued to walk, spike in hand. My friend saw this old rusty spike and offered to help me find a better one. I told him no, that this was the one I wanted. He questioned me since the spike I was carrying was obviously an eyesore, and honestly, if it was something one of my kids would have brought home, I would probably have told them to keep it outside. But there was something about this old spike that spoke to my spirit.

That night while sitting alone and feeling sorry for myself because the house was so quiet, a still small voice spoke to me. There was this “something” placed on my heart and words just flooded my head – words I knew needed to come out. So I grabbed paper and pen and began to write. This is what God placed in my heart that summer night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Railroad Spike…


Old


Weather Beaten


Tossed aside


Overlooked


No one would have noticed it. It had but one purpose and having been used, was it no longer of any worth? Is this its fate? To be tossed aside and forgotten? Is it over?

NO.


This is only the beginning. God sees the end from the beginning.


The Railroad Spike…


Strong


Sharp


Necessary for the completion of a plan.


It was created to be a part of something bigger. A small but necessary piece in history. Years of weather and abuse by countless numbers of trains passing over, yet it remained steadfast in its purpose. No storm, no train, and no hand of man can alter its original purpose, for its creator had only one idea in mind when he made it.


You…


Older


Weather Beaten


Tossed Aside


Most times overlooked.


Your Creator designed you with but one purpose. He fashioned you, He molded you, and He spoke life into you. No amount of time, no storms in life, and no hands of demons or man can alter your original purpose.


Be who He created you to be, and be only what He made you. HIS MOST PRECIOUS POSSESSION. HIS CHILD. HIS GIFT IN A PART OF HISTORY. Be who you are. Be out loud or in the secret places – only BE!  Just know… He who creates saw the end before you. He knows who you are and who you are to become. Be confident. Be strong, Be sharp, and Be necessary.


Be still and know… that “I AM”.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It took me a long time to understand what it meant to “be”. I kept thinking I was supposed to do something. I finally figured it out. I already was. I was everything I was supposed to be. I just had to believe in me. I had to stop seeing myself as I thought the world saw me, as I saw me, my distorted view. It was time to see me as God saw me. God doesn’t make any mistakes. He created what He desires for His purpose and in His time. I was who I was – not an accident, but put here with meaning and purpose. To accomplish something greater than. To speak for the voices of those who are in silence. To show a path to something Bigger than the pain. To let others know…

YOU ARE NOT ALONE


By the way – to this day I still have that railroad spike. I keep it in a drawer of a mantle clock this same friend bought me as a Christmas gift that same year. If you have ever been in this place, you will understand.

Kim M. Acosta is an adult survivor of child abuse and domestic violence. She is also a wife, mother, grandmother and is currently a student at Indiana Wesleyan University due to graduate Magna Cum Laude  with a BSW in December 2016. She is finishing out her field experience at an elementary school in Ohio where being a voice for the children is her passion. She joined NACSW  this summer.

Repenting of Religion

Mallory B.In the opening chapter of Repenting of Religion (2004) by Gregory A. Boyd, the author tells readers about an experience he had while sitting in a shopping mall. He began “people watching” as many of us often do. For every person that walked by, a thought went through his mind. Some positive, some negative. He caught himself and began to realize that he was attaching descriptions, characteristics, and titles on people he had never seen before in his life. Once he realized this, he immediately started talking to God right there in the mall. He shifted his thinking and began instead praying a blessing over each person that walked by. Boyd mentions in his Sunday sermons that this is an exercise he continues to practice to this day when he catches himself placing labels on those around him.

Boyd writes, “The only conclusion about other people that God allows us and commands us to embrace is the one given to us on Calvary: people have unsurpassable worth because Jesus died for them” (p. 107). As people pass us by, the one and only thing that we know about that individual is that Christ died for them. We don’t know their name, their history, or the struggles they face day to day, but we do know that they were worth Christ dying on the cross for. And if, in fact, this is the only true thing we know about that person, then what judgment can we pass?

The beautiful thing is that God does not command anywhere in the Bible that believers are assigned the duty of judgment. That is God’s role, and God’s role only. Rather than taking this on ourselves, we are able to take a deep breath and trust that God is working in the lives of everybody around us. We have the easy job of showing love and simply praying a prayer of blessing over each and every person we encounter. This exercise of praying a blessing over others helps to diminish our negative thoughts. It also paints a picture for us as we view them in God’s image and see the beauty of His creation. We should see others not as strangers, but as brothers or sisters in Christ whom God loves deeply.

This perspective is one that encourages me in my daily work. It reminds me about equality and keeping everybody on the same playing field. It reminds me to meet each individual where they are at, and to slow down in order to understand the obstacles they are facing. I am not to criticize or judge them, but rather assign them value and worth. I cannot look at myself and my own sin, and say that I am better or worse than another. Matthew 7:4 reads, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (NIV). This mindset prepares me for difficult discussions. I pray that in my work I will embrace others with the same love that Jesus Christ has so graciously given me.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the book of Luke. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37, NIV). In your social work practice and in your personal lives, I encourage you to trust that God is working in the lives of others and shift any negative thoughts and judgments you may have into thoughtful prayers of blessing.

Mallory Birch, LSW, is Program Coordinator for the Salvation Army in Roseville, MN. She has been a member of NACSW since 2005, when she was a student at Trinity Christian College, and a student representative on NACSW’s Board of Directors for two years. This blog entry is a adaptation of an article which appeared in the January, 2014 issue of NACSW’s newsletter, Catalyst. 

Reference: Boyd, G. A. (2004) Repenting of Religion Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Let’s Kill the Stigma!

BowmanJ0416CEUWebPeople don’t like addressing stigmas,  so they tend to grow into huge enigmas.

“Just sweep it under the rug,” some say. “If we don’t discuss it, it’ll go away.”

Stigmas are really big in the Church,  some sit and judge on a prideful perch.

There’s a stigma of mental illness.  But if we come together we can kill this.

Let’s kill the stigma … one person at a time!

Rather than talking about suicide, many bury their heads; trying to duck and hide.

But if we don’t talk, there’s a price to pay.  One hundred plus suicides each and every day.

So, if mental illness is your struggle,  you can’t just pull yourself from the rubble.

Many people with problems need therapy.  That doesn’t make them weak or crazy.

People say, “the problem’s just spiritual,”  and any talk of treatment is immaterial.

Sadly, this line of thinking is typical. But when you think about it, it’s hypocritical!

Some of these same people take insulin, since diabetes treatment involves medicine.

You see, all illnesses began with Adam’s sin. That includes the ones that cause our heads to spin.

You may have a chemical imbalance, that requires medical assistance.

If your serotonin level is low,  meds can help you get up and go.

Does it make a brother less of a Christian,  if he’s diagnosed with clinical depression?

Why is it that we whisper about a sister?  Is it because she has a form of bipolar?

Do they necessarily lack faith, if every day some pills they must take?

Those suffering with mental illness, are no less human than the rest of us.

There’s no shame in Christians seeking help, to address the emotional pain they’ve felt.

Yes, prayer and the Bible are foundational. But God also gave us health care professionals.

There are Christians who love the Lord Jesus, they’ve been trained to help when they see us.

But how can they help us if we never go?  This is the reason some may never grow.

The bravest thing you could ever do,  is to seek help and find life anew.

People don’t like addressing stigmas, so they tend to grow into huge enigmas.

“Just sweep it under the rug,” some say.  “If we don’t discuss it, it’ll go away.”

Stigmas are really big in the Church,  some sit and judge on a prideful perch.

There’s a stigma of mental illness.  But if we come together we can kill this.

Let’s kill the stigma … one person at a time!

Rev. Joel A. Bowman, Sr., LCSW is the Founder and Senior Pastor of the Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  He is a former member of NACSW’s Board of  Directors.

From Food Pantry to Food Co-op: Lessons Learned

BurgessM 0416CEUOne of the most common forms of charity is food for the hungry. How much of that work, though, is actually contributing to food security and long-term, sustainable progress for families? The organization I work for named Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) made the decision to change the way we practice food ministry – going from a food pantry, where clients show up to receive a free hand-out, to a food co-op, where participating members work together to address their own needs.

After over two years of planning and implementation, HSHM successfully converted our pantry to a co-op about 18 months ago. We call our co-op “Bread For Life,” and through this ministry the co-op members gain access to real food and real community.

It has been a tumultuous journey from pantry to co-op, but without a doubt worth every bump and challenge along the way. I’d like to share with you one painful realization we came to and three steps that moved us forward into a new and healthier model of charity.

A Painful Realization: One of our most significant challenges was that we had to do: take a long, hard look at our preconceptions about helping people. Reading books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, and taking a couple of trips to Atlanta to meet with staff at Urban Recipe (a low income food co-op) influenced our thinking significantly. Rather than simply celebrating our outputs, like the number of pounds of food we provided or the number of households we served, we started to look at the outcomes, the difference these services/resources were - or were not - making in the lives of the people we were serving.

It was only when we stepped back from the action of running our food pantry that we could see that we were providing emergency food assistance – which should be a one-time, short-term intervention – to the same individuals and families month after month. We also became aware of the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and discomfort our pantry recipients were experiencing. Once we took the time to honestly look and listen, we heard statements like, “I can’t believe I have to come to a food pantry,” and we saw the downcast faces of the recipients. The free food we were offering often came at the cost of program recipients sacrificing personal dignity.

This was a painful realization.

So, what were we supposed to do about it? Let me share with you three things we did to move us toward more a effective model of food ministry.

First, we started to listen intently. We listened for six months before taking any action. To do this, we enlisted the help of local college students and started asking our pantry customers questions. We asked about their experience with us, about their use of other food pantries in the community, and about their thoughts on the food co-op model. An overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with expressed excitement about the prospect of contributing to their own well-being and food security and were intrigued by the co-op concept.

Next, we made some incremental changes. We then began to evaluate the feasibility of converting our pantry to a co-op. Rather than make the leap all at once, we first converted our pantry from a ‘prepackaged’ model (we packed boxes of food and gave them to people regardless of their preferences) to a ‘choice’ model (where our pantry customers could shop for the food items they liked and leave behind the items they didn’t). This involved changing the physical layout of our food storage area and adding equipment like glass-front coolers and freezers that are conducive to the shopping experience. We were blessed with the support of local businesses who provided funds to purchase a new freezer for this purpose. At the same time, we started to inform our customers about our upcoming change to becoming a low income food co-op.

Finally, we took the plunge! At last we took the plunge and changed our operations over to a food co-op.  We thought we’d see a significant drop off in households when we made the switch, but we’ve seen just the opposite! In fact, even before we opened, over 100 people submitted co-op membership applications and we now serve more households as a co-op than we ever did as a food pantry (and we have many more on a waiting list to join).

In our co-op model, rather than simply providing free access to food, we also began providing opportunities for our customers to acquire new skills and build their capacities. Each member of the co-op helps perform the essential functions of running the co-op – tasks like stocking shelves, sorting and labeling donated food, cleaning, assisting other members to shop, and even performing some administrative tasks.  Our staff, volunteers, and co-op members work alongside each other and develop meaningful relationships in the context of their work.

Now, with an active co-op membership in excess of 425 households, the message is clear to us – people want to be given the opportunity to provide for themselves & will jump at the chance to do so. We have people who joined the co-op that had been told  they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. When we tell them we need them and want them to utilize their God-given talents and abilities, they positively light up!  Our Co-op Advisory Board shares responsibility with us in charting the future direction and scope of the co-op. We take their guidance on things like membership requirements, food products to stock, classes to offer, etc.

Over the past 18 months we’ve seen the co-op members fully embrace this shared responsibility model for the provision of food assistance.  When we give tours, our co-op members chime in with enthusiastic comments about their experiences.  Our members tell their friends and family about the co-op and encourage them to join, too.  Based on these and other affirming responses from co-op members and others in our community, we believe offering food assistance through the co-op model is truly a way that helps restore dignity and a sense of capability to people while at the same time easing their struggle to feed themselves and their families.  We’ve even begun to gather data using structured surveys to measure the change in our members’ sense of hope in their lives, and anticipate that these data will support our anecdotal observations thus far.

Do you have a story to share about poverty alleviation in your community? If so, please consider joining me and other NACSW members who have launched the Poverty Alleviation member interest group. We can use your help in sharing ideas and inspiration with the rest of the NACSW membership. For additional information about the Poverty Alleviation member interest group, contact Rick Chamiec-Case. 

Matt Burgess, MA, LCPC is Chief Operating Officer of Home Sweet Home Ministries, which is based in Bloomington, Illinois.  He has been a member of NACSW since 2013. 

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from material first published on www.charitydetox.com on May 22, 2015

Sharing thoughts for Christians in Social Work