Of great value:
Humility is hard for most of us. I’m not talking about a diminishing of one’s self-worth, because knowing that you are precious to God is a key to true humility. You see, the humble Christian knows that she is loved and valued unconditionally by the only one whose opinion matters. This can free her to set aside all preoccupation with self, and to really serve another. This kind of serving involves getting our hands dirty, and allowing someone else to reap the benefits of our labour, rather than using our “good works” as a way to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others. The title was a warning. This is a challenge!
A challenging talk
I once heard Lee Maracle speak. For those who have never heard of her, she is a Canadian Indigenous writer and speaker, focussed on topics that she has first-hand knowledge of as a woman and a member of that community. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I found her charming, unpretentious and funny. And every now and then she’d say something profound so simply that you’d almost miss it. There is one thing that she said that has stayed with me ever since and it keeps returning to my mind.
She was asked by a well-intentioned member of the audience, “What can we (non-Indigenous folks) do to help?” Maracle, without a trace of unkindness in her tone, replied in a way that was both insightful and challenging. I’m paraphrasing wildly here, but she said that what many groups and organizations want is to feel that they are at the forefront of enlightenment and good works. They are more interested in being seen to do something, than in actually doing something. They want to put on exhibits and lectures. They want to run campaigns. They want other people to look at them with approval. Instead, what they must do if they truly want to help, is look to the Indigenous people in their own community, go to them in humility and say, “What do you want to do? How can we support you in that?”
This, to me, was an epiphany. I knew the people that she was addressing quite well, and I saw immediately that she was right. Many of the Indigenous people within that place were troubled and would be challenging to work with. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, there were a number of folks for whom addiction, mental illness, poverty, and a history of incarceration were the reality. And here was this motherly woman, sweetly suggesting that the well-heeled leaders of this community, go in humility and ask them how they could serve and support. Wow.
There’s the epiphany… and then there’s application
And what might this have looked like? Well, I think it’s no exaggeration to say it might have been revolutionary. It might have been a hard, relentless task, with disappointments and relapses. But it might also have been transformative for all involved. And isn’t this what we’re really called to? A manner of living generously that cannot be easily compartmentalized, kept quarantined from the rest of our lives?
When the wave of refugee sponsorship overtook churches everywhere I confess that Maracle’s words were still ringing in my ears and I felt… concerned. Perhaps this was not an appropriate response. I am thankful for the generous hearts that wanted to help the people in the media stories and photos. But what broke my heart was the thought of the local people who carry on, feeling invisible, to those who could help them if they chose. Are there people present in our churches and neighbourhoods who struggle to find housing? To enrol their kids in school? To learn English? To find employment? To make ends meet? Of course there are. We know there are. Why is not the same energy and zeal put into embracing these people?
I think I know the answer. A “project” has a structure and an end-point. It is safe. When we go to a stranger and say, “How can I help you? How can I support you?” – not in some limited way, but in any way that’s needed; when we do that, we are leaving the door wide open for them to ask anything, and there is no exit strategy. We would not be able to wash our hands of the thing when we’re ready to be done. It would be such a huge risk, this kind of loving humility. I’m talking legal issues, boundary issues, financial risk, just plain embarrassing or confusing scenarios… But I cannot stop asking myself, “What would happen if we did it?”