Throughout this semester, we have thought critically about our service sites and whether or not what we do there could positively impact the lives of those we intend to serve. Our presence at these sites is not neutral, every interaction with every person helps shape their perception of us, our intentions, and their own identity and conception of self. We can either confirm people who are materially poor, marginalized, or disabled’s feelings of inferiority, or we can honor them and treat them with the respect they deserve as fellow human beings. In order to do this effectively, we must humble ourselves and show them that the only reason we are showing up is to care for them and know them deeply. Real, authentic relationships must be built on a level playing field in which each party is ready to learn from the other in order to grow together.
Real, authentic relationships are not built on any kind of agenda. Rather, they are built on a foundation of trust and shared brokenness and human commonality. Change will not occur when people continue to enter into relationships with an agenda, regardless of how noble that agenda may be. When you know someone and deeply care for them, the agenda changes. It is no longer “reform of disability checks through forming relationships with people that have disabilities and getting them to rally together in order to effect change.” Agendas develop faces, names, and stories. When you care for someone, you begin to see things from their perspective, and your agenda doesn’t seem so important anymore. It begins to morph and change and develop. Authentic relationships must be the basis of any kind of agenda, not the other way around. Authenticity cannot come strategically, it can only come through vulnerability and openness.
Once you have empathized with someone and know their story and have shared in their burdens and joys you can listen to where they need healing, and will probably learn a lot about where you need healing too. Poverty alleviation is about correcting relationships with self, the rest of creation, others, and God. Everyone is impoverished in different ways, and everyone has something to offer to every other person in their pursuit of healing these broken relationships.
When I first started volunteering at the Virginia Home, my agenda was to serve and help out people less fortunate than me in order to feel good about myself. I’ve been dramatically humbled in my time there, and have realized that I have so much more to gain than I could ever have to give. I never would have guessed that I would find my best guy friend, my mom away from mom, and a woman whose faith and walk with Jesus inspires me every week. As Bob Goff would say, “I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to be with them.” When the agenda is out of the picture, and you enter relationships with the intent to love a person exactly where they are at, true transformation can occur.