Leeds Citizens and Leeds Church Institute work together to employ a local Community Organiser, Becky Howcroft. In the second in a series of theological reflections related to the work of Leeds Citizens, Becky reflects on the importance of ‘stopping’ and simply ‘being with’ people rather than feeling the pressure to ‘do’ and asks us to think about how might we need to “disorganise” (i.e. stop doing) in order to reorganise around a listening posture?
In the course of my organising in recent weeks I spoke to a community leader recovering very slowly from COVID-19, a process which has caused her to completely re-evaluate and reflect on how unsustainable life was for her before the coronavirus pandemic. Another leader grappling with the pressures of fulfilling her role during lockdown restrictions, reflected on how the situation has meant that giving time to listening and visiting the isolated is now the priority; she is having to learn how to delegate other tasks to other people. As a result of these conversations I began to reflect on the importance of “stopping” and simply “being with” people rather than feeling the pressure to “do” all the time – particularly in relation to churches and the Christian community.
We know that a true experience of God’s grace and Spirit results in seeking justice in the world – Jesus made this apparent when he chose to read these words from Isaiah 42 at a synagogue in Nazareth when he began his ministry “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” But it is often the case that those involved in the complex and often pressured cycle of social action and social justice often feel like hamsters on a wheel that is constantly spinning, never quite managing to keep up.
Sam Wells hypothesises in the Nazareth Manifesto that many hold a core belief that the fundamental problem for humanity is mortality and overcoming the perceived limitations of poverty. Holding such a core belief may create in us a predisposition to see Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection primarily as a “fix” to this fundamental problem through the promise of eternity in heaven. Mission becomes focused on communicating that “fix” and building the Kingdom of God becomes strongly associated with overcoming the limitations that we perceive are holding people back from experiencing it, hence the delivery of services, running of projects and organising of poverty alleviation programmes.
But if we are to consider and internalise Wells’ alternate hypothesis, that the fundamental problem for humanity is in fact isolation- that “there is no value in existence unless it is existence in relationship – with God, one another and the creation” – how might that affect us as hamsters on the wheel? Would it perhaps give us a different predisposition, to see Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection as God’s desire for relationship playing out, stopping at nothing to have intimacy with humanity? Jesus spent 30 years living amongst the people of Nazareth; was God any less with humanity then than when Jesus began his ministry? How might the answers to these questions affect the value we place on relationship in building God’s Kingdom and how we perceive relationships and our role in them?
One way to respond, to “be with” is to take a listening posture, as the South Leeds leader responding to the coronavirus lockdown has done.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in “Life Together”
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them… Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally will no longer even notice it… The death of the spiritual life starts here… Brotherly pastoral care is distinguished from preaching… by the obligation of listening.”
Deep listening has value on multiple levels; not only does it demonstrate care, but it can also challenge the assumptions that we have about the person we are listening to. It helps us to recognise our prejudice and preconceptions and it takes away the position of power in relationships that we might be used to (the power that comes from providing a service; the power of holding a particular position; the power of being in control). And it means that rather than focusing on how we can “bring Jesus” to a person or a neighbourhood, we’re instead attentive to what Jesus is already doing in the life or a person or a community and looking for how we can usefully join in.
Wells disconnects “being with” from action, but I would argue that shared action is an organic outpouring of truly “being with” another person. A story from Mike Gecan’s pamphlet, “effective organising for congregational renewal” illustrates this. Gecan tells of how a church in Long Island took an alternative approach to running a soup kitchen. They organised intentional relational conversations with the men who came to the kitchen rather than just handing over the food. The church invested money in an organiser to support and train volunteers to have these conversations, and over time listened deeply to 600 people. A team of leaders formed from those who had been listened to, mostly men living in recovery, and over time this team ran a social justice effort tackling systemic problems and corruption in the local hostel system.
There are questions which emerge for people of faith from this reflection – are we really listening? How might we need to “disorganise” (i.e. stop doing) in order to reorganise around a listening posture? How does this posture integrate with discipleship efforts and gospel teaching?