For the past several days, I have been immersed in the learning, reconnecting, and networking of a professional social work education conference. I have to be honest: I have been to this conference for six consecutive years, but in recent years I haven’t always taken the time I should to attend sessions simply to learn. I feel a constant pull to conduct screening interviews for job applicants, or to engage in wonderful mentoring and networking roles that sometimes conflict with the program schedule. These are the busy…and mostly enjoyable…roles of an academic social worker. But this particular year, for a host of reasons, I simply needed and wanted to be a learner. So, I have chosen to do so, unapologetically.
I offer this prelude because one of the conundrums I had in making this decision was the fleeting thought of when I was going to find time during my “learning” to complete my weekly virtual faith formation work for my faith community. I didn’t really even know what I would write about or what media I would use to illustrate the week’s Gospel theme, even though I had been reading the words each morning to start my day. I carried the words on my heart which, I am reminded, is probably the most important way that we pray. As I moved from session to session over the past few days, my thoughts kindled in resonance with the theme of the weekly Gospel lesson:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40
I held these words of my faith tradition in my own heart. I was holding them as I listened to the lecture of economist Jared Bernstein, self-described Zen Buddhist, comparing the difference between political philosophies of YOYO (“You’re On Your Own”) and WITT (“We’re All In This Together”) on poverty reduction. You can read his blog post on this subject for a sense of the lecture. As he spoke, I began to consider the magnitude with which it is impossible to end systematic, structural poverty as a solo act. Even if a few outstanding successes are noted, acting individually does nothing for the structural inequality underscoring the issue. So, we are compelled not only to “find our bliss” or ameliorate the poverty in our lives, but to act collectively. It isn’t enough to give a dollar to someone we deem worthy on a street corner, nor just to invest in our own well-being. If we truly love our neighbors, we will want to act on the collective behalf of our local, national, and global communities. Our acts of faith to engage in systemic change are a response to our greatest commandment.
Later, I had a truly inspired opportunity to talk about faith and justice-in-action with another group of social workers and other professionals transforming their Washington, DC church through not only individual, pro-bono health and mental health services but through embracing collective trauma, and seeking communal healing through mind, body, and spirit. I began to realize, sitting in the audience, the ways in which my faith community at St. Thomas is also working together to take these steps as were several others colleagues in other churches around the country who were collectively sharing that session with me. We were seeing our lives, our professions, our neighbors, and our varied expressions of spirituality and faith coming together in service to something beyond just our own interests. I had a visceral sense of the coming together of the two great commandments in the Gospel within the people collected together in that room. We were feeding each other: mind, body, and spirit. I thought of a video I recently viewed that depicted the Allegory of the Long Spoons, attributed to folktales deriving from Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian origins. Take a look:
These thoughts coalesced even further this morning in a plenary which beautifully wrapped concepts of social justice, privilege, and anti-oppression practice into living, daily examples of how we relate to each other. As I sat and listened, a different realization began to take shape. I began to realize that my neighbors were not only people. My neighbors are also my communities, my professional identities, the communities and professional identities that touch my own life. My neighbors are ideas, and inspirations. My neighbors are knowledge and wisdom, teaching and learning, mentoring and being mentored. As I learn to more fully move into an embrace of multiple identities, multiple perspectives, collective idea sharing…I grow. We all grow. We collectively grow. Indeed, each of us grows only if and when we are investing in others, and in that which is greater than we are. In each encounter where we reach beyond ourselves, we gain a glimpse of the Divine, and we learn a bit more of what it means to love God wholly.
As we move into Monday’s world, on this last Sunday of this faith formation series, I ask each one of us to live into the possibility of being the “collective I” that sees our own selves reflected in relation to each other: individuals, communities, global allies together in a common vision. It is dedicated work. It is collective work, not a solo endeavor. And, like my lesson this week, you have to be willing to be a learner.
We’re all in this together.
That is the greatest commandment.