Thursday, July 28, 2011

End of the line

I noticed an interesting phenomenon several years ago, the last time I worked in social services, and have noticed it again this year.  Most of us in this field are in it because we genuinely care about other people and want to be of service.  Along with that comes an unwillingness to be at the "end of the line."  Let me explain what this means...

When someone is seeking services (rent assistance, food, gas vouchers, etc), and visits a specific agency, no social worker at that agency wants to ultimately deny services and be at the "end of the line."  The thinking goes, if my agency doesn't have that service and/or funding, I will just give you the name of another agency, and they might have it.  Because I want to give you something.  It feels really awful to say to someone, "I really can't help you, and unfortunately, no one else can either."  My agency is often the "end of the line" for a lot of services.  We are the largest provider of energy assistance in the state of Colorado, provide a substantial amount of rental assistance, as well as we are one of the only agencies left in Denver that provides assistance with bus tokens.  So, we find ourselves in that position a lot.  If we can't help you, there is no other agency that is going to be able to help you either. 

When I worked at the agency serving homeless women several years ago, I will admit that I was one of those people who pushed clients onto other agencies and let that other organization do the unpleasant work of telling someone that they could just not be helped.  Somehow it felt better to be able to offer my clients something, even if that was just a phone number to another agency.  However, now being on the receiving end of many of those "referrals", I have a different view.  Not only does it put the case manager in a terrible position, but it ultimately does not serve the client either. 

On Monday, I had a client that sat all the way through job services orientation, and waited 45 minutes to talk to me afterwards, just to ask if we would pay her car insurance and provide gas vouchers.  When I said that our agency did not provide that assistance, and furthermore, no agency in Denver provided those services, she came unglued.  Some case workers might attempt to pass this client off to another organization or a church, but that is only wasting the client's time and remaining resources.  It is far more compassionate to  be honest.  This woman was furious with me, and said that because I could not help her, she was going to become homeless.  Which is entirely not true, but it doesn't always feel so great. 

I have to remember that there are many, many clients every day that I can help.  My inability to provide a service in the moment is not going to make someone homeless (they played a role in that themselves a long time ago), and I am called to do the most good for the most people.  Pragmatism is a pretty important skill to have in this field.  Fortunately, after my difficult conversation with that client on Monday, I had a wonderful client that needed  a variety of services that I could actually provide and he was grateful.  And that is the way that things usually go.  The good and the bad, all mixed together.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Blast from the Past: Augustana Senior Sermon

One of the most revered traditions at my alma mater, Augustana College, is the opportunity that seniors have to preach during the chapel hour.  In the spring of my senior year I wrote and delivered the sermon listed at the link below.  The professor shown in the photo with me was my capstone professor and advisor, Dr. Ann Pederson. 

Augustana Senior Sermon (2005) "Splendid Imperfections"

As I prepare for seminary in the fall, and the homilitics (preaching) classes that I will be taking over the next three years, I thought it prudent to revisit this sermon.  For never being formally trained in hermeneutics or homilitics, the sermon is not bad.  It is funny how much has changed, and yet, how little has changed over the years.  I still find myself wondering if God can really use me, and still have to challenge myself to lay down my metaphorical nets to follow the Call to discipleship.  But, for better or worse, that is what I am doing and it is only through Grace that I am able to do so in spite of my imperfections. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

Wild Goose Festival

A week ago I returned from the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC.  This festival is the first of its kind in North America, modeled after a similar event in the UK called Greenbelt, which is a festival of arts, music, justice and spirituality.  This festival was born out of a desire to see people of faith embody their faith in more just and joyful ways, connecting across lines of denomination, politics, class, race, etc.  The hope of this festival was to create space for conversation, reflection and celebration of both our similarities and differences in the name of an evolving church.

This festival was not a convention or a conference led by keynote speakers and attended by passive listeners.  Rather, it involved musicians, theologians, social justice advocates and artists engaging in conversation with participants about tough questions relevant to the deep needs of the world and of God's people.  As many of you know, I generally balk at theology that smacks of any sort of fundamentalism or evangelicalism.  However, I also shy away from people who are too far left in their theology, although this is a relatively new development for me.

This festival provided real sacred space for engaging in conversation instead of beating each other over the head with our theology.  I spent an entire morning just sitting at the coffee shop on the festival grounds with a book, my journal and a really large latte.  I had wonderful conversations with all sorts of people including an evangelical book publisher, a physician who works with HIV patients in San Francisco, some prominent emergent theologians, a couple in their seventies who drove to the festival from the Midwest, the Muslim chaplain from Duke University and the author of the book that I am currently leading a book study on, Samir Selmanovic.  What was beautiful is that I, along with everyone else at the festival, heard and experienced things that made us uncomfortable (don't get me started about the contributor to Religious Dispatches advocating for gender neutral pronouns...), yet didn't shut down the conversation.  There were things I passionately agreed with and other things I vehemently disagreed with, but I put that aside for awhile, and just listened.

I am working on being able to freely admit that I have been one of those people who have used my progressive theology and social activism to pass judgment on others, while moving forward with an attitude of humility and pragmatism.  I had a great conversation with my pastor Nadia this week in which we were reflecting on the progressives' tendency to "call people out", fracturing the very relationships which could lead to change.  The only place for authentic dialogue is in the middle where there is space for conversation and grace, where we suspend our judgments and demonstrate openness and a willingness to learn.  And while this is something that I have been attempting to practice for years, this festival finally allowed me to live it.