We approached her home like we do every week, excited to see our friend, expecting to crack a few jokes, get a good hug, and proceed down the street. There was nothing unusual about the day, and no major crisis had developed in the area or in her life.
The only difference was the addition of a journalist, a free-lancer looking to create a documentary on the area and feel out the neighborhood. She had walked with us for several weeks, and to our neighborhood friends had easily become one of the pack. She also had taken to our comical friend, and was interested in interviewing her.
Ahead of time, our friend was nervous. This middle-aged woman was worried she didn’t have the right answers, or wasn’t interesting enough, or even worse, that she would be heard. She was afraid her name might be published, and her neighbors would punish her for any truth that criticized them. After allaying her fears, the microphone came out, the television was silenced, and the interview began. Five questions and two hours later, we were all transformed.
What was so powerful? The reporter only asked very brief, broad questions, allowing periods of silence to occur and letting our friend speak for as long as she needed.
The power came from listening. This was one of the few times that someone validated our friend by asking to listen to her story, as she told it, under her terms. Her words weren’t twisted, or boxed into pre-assumed thoughts and patterns, or judged or ignored. They were not immediately analyzed under the microscope of scholarly articles, psychological implications, or any other device that we love to use when ministering to the poor.
Sometimes we fail to value the wisdom and insight that comes from the stories of those to whom we minister. We fail to acknowledge the benefit of simply listening to another’s journey, but when we do, we become fascinated by the perseverance of humanity. We appreciate these individuals all the more.
A middle-aged man, ex-felon, and friend of Brothers and Sisters of Love is determined to fight for change in his community. He has reformed his ways, remained clean from his addictions, and is doing everything he can to make connections, find work, and lift up his community. He writes poetry and has even penned a book. People tell him that he is great and that he inspires them, but he cannot find a way to get paid. They say they will help, but nothing comes through. He repeats that his community is dying today, and time is of the essence. He is clashing with the churches and professionals he looked to for leadership because for over a year no money has come. He has not been exposed to or prepared for the arena of grants, waiting periods, meetings, and collaborations. This clash is starting to escalate, and he is growing in anger at those trying to help. No one is listening to his specific demands. Ignoring his anger can lead to an incredible backlash.
This pattern is often seen in those returning citizens attempting to do something positive with their lives. The values and systems of the poor are not the values and systems of the Church, social services, court systems, or any other structures aimed at increasing their chances for a successful future. These systems have their methods, and they mute the important voice of those with whom they work. As a result, these returning citizens grow frustrated, weary, feel unsupported, and return to their old ways, needing comfort and stability.
Why is it so hard to listen? Listening to others requires releasing control and pre-conceived notions about a given situation. It is inefficient. It is emotionally draining. Narratives can be boring, repetitive, or seem off-track. They can even be filled with lies and conspiracies. However, it is precisely the details that seem off the wall that may lead to insight.
People question how Brother Jim can enter the streets when others cannot. The answer is simple: Through years of listening he appreciates people’s history and he creatively responds to their cries, listening most of all to the Spirit of God in their midst.
~Megan Cottam, BSL
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