I started musing on the theme of “being with” on small points of light a few days ago, as I reflected on my recent time at the Wild Goose Festival. My thoughts were jarred listening to Sara Miles give a talk, as I sat with my tween daughter. I was unable to fix the worries she had raised to me earlier that day, nor to resolve the unsettledness in my own spirit having heard and taken in what she had shared with me. All I could do was be with her, and she with me, as we navigated the changes and chances of life together.
Although I don’t have the text of her talk, you can get the general idea of the content by reading this post from Sara Miles. What struck me was how her portrayal of “with” as a theological construct mirrors the talks I give in my own academic circles about community based participatory research (CBPR) as an ideological and methodological construct. I fully embrace CBPR in my academic scholarship. I have invested my own energy in conducting research, writing, and teaching research methods which facilitate partnerships with community. I do not conduct research “on” or “for” or “to.” I research with. It is hard work, it takes a long time…and it changes everyone, including me. Just like ministry. Just like God. As I sat, listening, I could feel my vocational paths being with each other, too.
This theme of “being with” has permeated my soul and remains with me. As I contemplate this theme, two simple moments of “being with” stand out as illustrations, offering small points of light for the journey:
Being With: Giving to Receive
My daughter was three months old the first time I packed her up into my car and drove the 2 1/2 hours south from our comfortable house in a mid-west city into the rural community where I housed the Women’s Wellness Initiative. My vision, when this project began, was to offer a resource of mental health support to women residing in one of the poorest and resource scarce regions of the United States. I quickly learned the year prior that I wasn’t going to accomplish a damn thing trying to do something “for” these women. As a doctoral student, I was learning a lesson that was far more valuable: how to engage with individuals and community to co-create change. So, I scrapped my prior research, abandoned all hope of this project leading to a dissertation (I found other data and other questions for that) and began the process of setting off in a new direction to learn how to research with.
Arriving at the community center, I situated my daughter in a cloth sling around my business attire and filtered in to this room of community leaders I had not met in person before. They knew each other, and they knew people who knew people who knew me. They were willing to give this a shot: to help co-create a program supporting new mothers. And here I was…a new mother, just like them. Maybe that should have occurred to me, but it didn’t. I just didn’t have a sitter for the length of this day, and I was trying to keep breast feeding, and I wasn’t ready to let my baby out of my sight. Again, as I should have realized, just like every person there. What I met when I walked in was a room full of women who immediately wanted to meet the bundle of baby I carried…and then maybe, perhaps, me. Within five minutes someone whom I didn’t even know wanted to hold her, and subsequently took her off into the crowd to meet all the other expectant and new moms. I felt maternal detachment ripping through me like a knife. And yet, I chose trust.
Then, something happened. Someone else showed me their precious little baby, and another woman began to ask questions about infant care. Someone else shared her stories of loss, and how much faith it took for her to try to get pregnant again. Toddlers played with the sling I was wearing and we compared notes on how we managed sleepless nights. I hadn’t even passed out an agenda, or explained who I was. We were simply being with…these other new moms and I…being with our common challenges and joys and fears. That first day, where my traditional research mentoring would suggest we accomplished nothing, was the day I accomplished everything. I learned the value of being with.
Being With: Receiving to Give
A few weeks ago, at Wild Goose, I had gone from a mountaintop of joy to feeling defeated and depleted. I started my morning sitting in the back of the crowd at the main stage, keeping myself in the shade and at what I thought was a safe distance from the evangelical preacher on the agenda. Intellectually, I know that spirituality and faith are expressed in many forms. But, spirtually, I am still recovering from a painful past. I found myself trying to hide the tears that were welling up. My throat had started to close off from pent up emotion as I tried to be present…but ended up suffering…through the preacher’s passionate sermon and alter call. I was right with his content…a call to justice, the use of power to overcome oppression. But, the re-experience of this charismatic delivery was oppressing me, raising old baggage and internal messages from the spiritual pain inflicted on me in my own childhood. I was sitting alone, trying to focus cognitively on the knowledge that others were moved, inspired, and fulfilled by the message and the messenger. But, that was not the case for me. I realized that even among a group of people that I had earlier described as “my tribe” I was not feeling at home. Far, far from it. The cracks of my brokenness were palpable as the inner child in me recoiled unconsciously. I finally walked away, seizing the opportunity to leave and collect myself at the peaceful flow of a river, the rising of morning fog that gave me time to be still, to breathe, to feel unconditional belovedness at the core of my soul again. I had come back to the group just in time for closing Eucharist, but I knew I was fragile, at best.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, my eyes and throat still burning, and began to say the familiar and comforting words opening Holy Eucharist. I sang a response and heard a lovely voice beside me. I turned to smile at an older woman, worshipping alone. She held out her hand, and I happily joined my hand with hers as my partner in worship. We joined with each other in voice, in prayer, in communion. Others joined with us, too. The palpable healing of that “worship with” was a divine gift, a simple but powerful healing moment that reflected God with us, God with me: patient, persistent, unconditional. All from the simple gift of an outstretched hand, an invitation to worship with, received with an open heart into which light could pour freely through the cracks of my brokenness. I was reminded how valuable the gifts of healing are, and in what simple forms this gift presents itself when our hearts are open, when we are willing to receive the gift of being with.