I sat in a church listening to a woman tell me about the horrific domestic violence that she had experienced from her former partner. It had left her so scared that even when she had moved out she slept in the wardrobe of her new room to try to feel safe.
But she then told me about the difference that moving into a Hope into Action home had made. She spoke about the kindness and patience of her Empowerment Worker and the genuine friendship from the local church. With this love and support, she had rebuilt her life. She had recently done an Alpha course at the church and was now starting her own catering business.
She said to me:
“My Empowerment Worker didn’t just give me a ladder to climb out of the situation, she showed me how to build my own staircase.”
I used this quote in my talk at the Hope into Action annual conference last week. Around 350 people came to Kingsgate Church in Peterborough and it was an incredibly uplifting and inspiring day.
My favourite part of the day was when our tenants received awards in recognition for progress in a whole range of categories such as Recovery from Addiction, Financial Management and Education and Training. It was beautiful and moving and a great illustration of empowerment.
Helping people in ways which empowers their strengths is a key priority for contemporary social activism. Its a challenge we cannot avoid if we truly want to help people.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians contains great wisdom on these matters:
1. Carrying other people’s burdens…
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
The Bible is clear: helping others is right at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus teaches that loving our neighbours is right alongside loving God as the most important commandment. Jesus embodies this in countless examples of how he responds to those who are despised, rejected and judged by others.
Supporting and loving others is so central that Paul describes carrying each other’s burdens as ‘fulfilling the law of Christ’. It is this ‘law’ which has inspired the church for centuries to show grace to those affected by homelessness.
2. …but each should carry their own load
Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. (Gal 6:4-5)
As so often in the Bible, there is a tension illustrated in this passage between grace and truth. There is grace in the command to carry each other’s burdens, but there is truth in the emphasis that each should carry their own load.
What does this tension look like in practice?
I think it means that we should provide help to people when they need it: food, shelter and debt support when they are in crisis. But the underlying aim of our help should be to empower people to look after themselves. Rather than foster dependency on what we offer, our aim should be that they are better equipped to carry their own loads. This is not easy.
The distinction between crisis and chronic problems is important. When we give crisis-type responses to chronic problems we can end up entrenching problems further (for more see Charity Detox).
All social action projects should be considering: how does our help empower people to carry their own loads? How do we help people build their own staircases?
3. Avoiding burnout
‘Let us not become weary in doing good’ (Gal 6:9)
Over the years, I have met a lot of people who have burnt out from their efforts to help people. Combinations of middle-class guilt, radical aspirations and naivety combine to draw kind people into highly difficult and messy situations. If we are not careful then its easy to ‘become weary in doing good’. and we can even become cynical about helping anyone.
Good boundaries are an essential way of avoiding unhelpful naivety and cynicism. They help sustain a grace-filled approach to others.
And, most importantly, boundaries help the people we are aiming to help. They model an appropriate form of mutuality which can build trust, confidence and dignity. This is far more helpful and humanising to those in need than allowing yourself to used as a doormat.
There is a fundamental humility in working to empower others. As this prayer, made famous by its association with Oscar Romero* reminds us, we are not the saviours of others:
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
*see the helpful comment from John Faris below
4 thoughts on “Empowering change: carrying the burdens of others so each can carry their own load”
Once again, a very wise and helpful post. But let me be pedantic and draw attention to this post:
This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.
To me, this does not diminish the wisdom of the prayer at all. Truth is truth, even if it is not attached to a famous name.
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Hi John – thanks so much for clarifying that detail which is important. I have amended the post and made reference to your comment. And the wider point you make is also very important – truth is truth and we don’t need famous names to affirm it! Many thanks
Thank you Jon for your swift and gracious reply.
I am glad you agree with me about famous names. CS Lewis and even Winnie the Pooh are quite often accredited with things which they clearly didn’t say.
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Hey John, I’m left wondering how your thoughts (and actions of Hope into Action) tackle the more systemic conditions caused by Neo-liberalism? I remember holding very similar beliefs as you share hear a number of years ago, particularly when I worked as an ally within the disability self-advocacy movement. The idea of empowerment was central to this work and produced much affect in many peoples individuals lives.
However, I also saw that empowerment of individuals and even collectives (churches), was continually undermined by a society that had caused/contributed to people to be marginalised in the first place. In a sense I found myself in a deep contradiction…being involved in struggles that aimed to give people a better deal in the game that had caused them such harm…..
Romero’s commitment to overcoming sin, also involved addressing the corporate/structural conditions of the principalities and powers of his day and culture…..this is what led to his death. The sin that causes inequality, prejudice, discrimination, sexism, toxic masculinity etc….which I would imagine may have played a large part of the story your thoughts begin with regarding domestic violence…. This does not seem to feature in your thinking here (although I know it is something that you have given much thought to), please forgive me if I’ve missed something you’re trying to say.
I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water, but to not have the balance of addressing our own complicit lifestyles that hold up systems that produce conditions that contribute to the build up of these principalities and powers, might allow some to think that individual good actions are enough and let us off the hook, via boundaries that protect us from these realities and ensure we don’t burn out…
So does contemporary social action simply mean empowering people to be citizens of consumption within systems that are causing such deep suffering to ourselves, neighbours and planet (which may literally burn out)? I struggle with my own compliance in this, and long for a deeper revelation of what it means to love in these times.