Pentecost Reflection: The Spirit Creates Community
by Eveline Crotty
One night I sat with a woman who was dying. The doctors predicted that she had about three weeks to live. As we talked she shared with me at length that she had been a dancer from a very young age until recent years. Now, I also had been a dancer from a young age until the night before I entered religious life when I hung up my dancing shoes for the last time. From that moment until this night about twelve years had lapsed. I had never danced again and had kept my love of dancing to myself.
As I listened to her that night we shared back and forth the essence of what dance had meant to us both. It was an extraordinary experience that I have never forgotten. When I left her—it was a Friday—she said to me ‘when you come back to the ward on Monday I will not be here. I am now ready to let go and die.’
As I left her I wondered if I was ready to let go and share with my peers the profound experience I had just had and also share a very personal side of myself as to how precious dancing and its deeper expression had been to me all my life.
When I returned to the hospital on Monday, one of the young resident doctors met me and said with puzzlement ‘Mrs ….. died early Saturday morning. I can’t understand why! She had more time yet.’
Later that day I shared with my peers and supervisor my experience of this night. My supervisor’s response to me after a long pause was, ‘You have begun to dance again’.
This is a very personal story I share, but it may give some understanding as to why I use the following image. It was this new awareness and understanding of myself that prepared me to value a partnership model of listening and working.
Partnership in Community
When I think of partnership, the image for me is that of two artiste dancers.
A person can be a dancer but when we experience seeing a true artiste at work we experience something other. I believe those who become artistes and then move into dancing in partnership with another gradually become one in spirit and movement. Each is an independent person, coming from a particular context; social, economic, cultural etc.
So the question is: How does one move in the first place from being a dancer to becoming an artiste? Then, how does one move from being an individual artiste to becoming part of one artiste partnership?
I believe the process of becoming an artiste takes place slowly. Hours of theory and practice are involved to learn the steps and movements. The theme of the dance is explored, entered into and experienced to find its true expression. Finally, and this does not happen for all, a day comes when a distinction between being a dancer and an artiste emerges. The spirit of the dance has been grasped and now the artiste is able to dance from the inside out (as the expression goes).
So, what is the essential element within a partnership that enables the artistes to dance as one?
I believe it takes listening to the other from the heart, allowing a freedom to grow from within where one feels confident to flow with the movement, take risks, be led where the other wants to take one and at other times to lead or guide the other. The movement becomes an ebb and flow that comes from within, depending on the theme and context that is being danced. At times joy is felt, at other times intense pain.
Transformative action of the spirit
If one is just dancing the movement, little of this is felt. But if one allows oneself to be taken by the spirit of the dance then one is taken into places within, that can never be dreamt of. It is then, I believe, that the Spirit of God smiles. This movement into partnership is the human expression of the transformative action of the Spirit.
This image of partnership may not be an appropriate image for everyone. I am sure there are other images. But I use this one as I believe that there are so many similarities to partnership in mission because the work of mission is about the transformation of people’s lives — my own, as well as the people I am in contact with.
One way of being in mission in an urban context, particularly in western cultures, and the most transforming way I believe, is through relatedness with people, building partnerships as our lives are in the process of being transformed.
When a person moves into an urban context, firstly, one needs to learn the steps. This occurs through entering the scene and getting the feel of the context one has moved into. A person brings past experience, resources, knowledge and skills, but these have to be held in check for some time so that new learning within a new context can take place.
So many people, when they move into mission in a western urban context, find it so different from the community-based cultures or churches they have come from. You hear people say ‘I tried to create a community when I arrived but it didn’t seem to work”.
When asked, ‘What have you been feeling about your experience within this urban setting at your gut level?’ some will reply, ‘I feel alienated, useless, nothing I try works, I just don’t feel I fit”.
I believe once these deeper feelings have been articulated a starting point has been reached. Now a person is ready to step inside the culture of the city, suburb, parish, housing area and listen to what many of the people in this particular unique setting are experiencing.
The words of the people may not be well articulated, or the language may not be familiar to our ears. But when one begins to listen from the heart one will hear the pain of alienation of people, from their land, family, culture, overseas homelands, meaningful rituals of cultural identity, or religious practices.
People in urban contexts can’t always articulate this for themselves and the outward behaviour very often does not give a clue to the deeper reality that is taking place. We meet people feeling immense loneliness, insignificance, apathy and frustration. We see children and adults displaying violent behaviour to family, neighbours, and property.
At one extreme some feel utter despair and take their own lives. At another extreme there is a richness that can be articulated from the experience that can leave one breathless, so to speak, as you feel you are meeting God in a way never met before. This, for many of us, is other to the context we have come from and the life we believe that God has planned for each and every one of us. Our original framework can be quite alien to the cultures and context that we enter.
How does one get a genuine feel for and an understanding of this alienating context? By listening, listening, and more listening! Listening to the stories, to the pain, to the fun times, to the dreams and hopes of people. By offering no solutions. By sharing our own vulnerabilities and letting people see that basically we are as human and frail as they are.
Now, what are the choices we can make when our gut feelings become so intense about our given context and what is happening to people within it? We can choose to stay with the feelings of pain, inadequacy, alienation, vulnerability and powerlessness, or cut out the pain and take out our bag of resources from the past, those that worked in another context, and apply them.
If true partnership in mission is to take place, much time is required. And if programmes are needed they need to come in the people’s time, not in our time. If we really believe that partnership is the way to go, then time and space must be there.
Relationships grow slowly if they are genuine. When people have experienced so much alienation, they do not easily move into relationships with us as representatives of a particular church, especially one that perhaps has alienated them in hurtful ways. People are wary, and rightly so.
The keys to being in partnership in mission, I believe, are patience, comfortableness with one’s own fragility, ability to believe in the way one is being in relationship in this context, and the ability to stand firm when the world around criticises you because success stories are rarely seen or heard, and no buildings can be seen for your effort.
Trust in God, who is just waiting to be heard in this context if we can stop our talking and listen. Trust and belief in the people that they do have the power to empower themselves, to speak with their own voices, to take hold of their lives and transform them even when society does everything to keep them at the bottom of the ladder.
The qualities of leadership are all around us. With encouragement, and once again patience, we wait for the person to take up leadership opportunities in creative ways, rather than in socially unacceptable ways. This waiting does take time.
People in urban contexts, particularly in western cultures, have enormous networks. These networks of people come into contact with each other for certain tasks, gatherings and sharings.
The networks move around and change. They are not as homogeneous as communities. They seem to work better in urban cultures where alienation has been so internalised and when they are recognised for their potential.
People experience the freedom to move in and out of them. No long-term demands are placed on people in these networks and short-term goals can be achieved. People share their lives, skills, thoughts and resources where they wish to share and when they want to share them, on their own terms.
This may sound selfish or self-centred for those who are familiar with certain paradigms of long-term commitment. However, to enter into and work within the framework of urban cultures, our own personal paradigms and mission paradigms have to be stretched and held in tension so that the Spirit of God can do the working, not ourselves. Networks are to do with relatedness rather than relationships.
Strong personal bonds are not there if you look closely. People relate to each other from safe distances and for many this works better and is longer lasting. This model gives the space to learn to relate differently rather than only knowing how to relate from the experience of their personal and family history or present experience, which for many is very destructive. This model of relatedness can begin the process of transformation and allow a person in time to move into a new way of expressing a relationship that is more life giving for them personally.
Once again, can we cope with this form of relating when sometimes we will be acknowledged, other times we will be ignored? If we can hang in there and remember once again that this is the work of the Spirit of God all will be well.
I continually stand back in amazement as I see transformation taking place and people finding new, creative ways to meet their day-to-day living.
Sr Eveline Crotty RSM has lived in varying urban contexts all of her life both in Australia and overseas and is presently living in Redfern, inner-city Sydney. In the last thirty years she has worked in urban contexts where people are struggling to find meaning in economic, social and cultural deprivation. This article is condensed from the South Pacific Journal of Mission Studies (March 2001).