Let me begin by sharing that I am a licensed social worker and also an ordained Baptist minister. As you will no doubt discover in this blog post, the complexities of how I identify myself are many.
For me personally – and this may not be for all church social workers – I identify within the church as a minister, and outside the church as a social worker simply because these are the titles that are recognized by each sector respectively. At times this dual identity is complicated, yet it remains beautiful to me and is essential to my call.
Every minister has his or her “thing,” you know, something that minister refers to time and time again that after a while begins to sounds like a broken record. You can almost predict that each time this minister opens his/her mouth, this “thing” will make an appearance. Sometimes we don’t mind as much because some ministers’ “things” seem easy enough to do – or so we think: “love God,” “love others,” or “be kind.”
But other “things” are more difficult: “be generous,” or “love as I have loved you.” I have learned a few of my own pastor’s “things,” many of which I have grown to love. When praying over newly dedicated babies, our pastor prays that God “will not give them an easy life, but a good life.” Placing his finger, sticky with salt, over the lips of a newly raised body from the baptismal waters, he proclaims, “you are the salt of the earth.” He then sends them out of the water with a candle proclaiming that they are also now “the light of the world.”
These “things” are no longer just euphemisms, but have become a part of our congregation’s shared story. My “thing,” for now anyways, is “story.” We each have one. However, we often miss how our stories connect with each other: how your story influences my story, and my story influences yours. We belong to one another and it is through sharing our stories that we come to realize this important truth.
The greatest story of all tells us that each of us are made in the likeness of God and that we are, in fact, our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers. Jesus liked stories, so much so that he taught through story. In fact, our written Scriptures were shared orally through story decades before they was formally written down.
I hope you will be kind and allow me to share one story that has influenced me a great deal, and that I hope will send you searching for your own stories of influence and deep connection. For the last four years I have traveled to Ghana, West Africa, with Baylor University. So many stories have been shared and created there that Ghana feels like home to me now.
At the end of our time in Ghana each year we traveled to the Cape Coast with our friends and visit a castle, one that was once used primarily for the exportation of human beings during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Silently we walked through the museum that displays shackles used to bind the hands of men, women and children, and examined maps of boats that were strategically packed with humans for maximum capacity.
Each year we were lead first through the dungeons of the male slaves. Standing in the dark with the faint scent of mildew, vomit, and feces in our nostrils, we learned that right above us sat the church used at that time. A moment not easily forgotten, I wondered to myself how people could worship God in that church when there were others literally living in hell right below them.
But before that thought had a chance to fully settle in my heart we were off, this time to visit the dungeon that held women and children. On our way there, we walked through a tiny cell used to hold those who rebelled: women who refused to give up their babies, men who refused to lose their dignity, and children of God who refused the sexual advances of others.
Once inside the women’s and children’s dungeon, I would see a stairwell leading to the captains room, realizing these steps were strategically placed to connect the most powerful to the most vulnerable. We walked through the living quarters of the Dutch or Portuguese or English, and look out the window to an ocean so blue, so beautiful, so calming, wondering how could this all be. Finally we made our way back down to the lower level and went through a door labeled “The Door of No Return,” so named because for all who left through this door, none ever made it back.
Each year while visiting this castle I would rediscover that my story is somehow connected with the stories of those I was learning about, even though they were written long before I was born. I would realize that their history was mine and mine theirs; it was our history, our story. Artist Micah Bourne filmed a powerful poem, “Thank God for Evolution,” on location at this same slave castle.
I share this with you because until we have moments like these, moments of deep connection with others, it’s hard to become the empathetic and loving people we are called to be. We desire to be advocates for the most vulnerable in our society but until we discover the connection that links us all we can only be sympathetic responders, which is something entirely different.
If you have read this far you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with social work and the advancement of our profession. My answer is: everything! When leaving the castle I would notice each year a photograph of what appeared to be writing on the wall, which reads, “Until the lion has it’s historian the hunter will always be the hero.”
As social workers, our profession demands that we give each person the dignity that is due to her/him, and that we seek justice where injustice thrives. We need to begin sharing each others’ stories, so that at the end of the day, it is not the hunter that wins, but it is us, all of us.
May we be a profession that strives to find an inter connectedness that heals us and binds us together. And like any good minister I close us with a hearty, “AMEN!
Heather M. is Minister of Missions at Wilshire Baptist Church in Texas. She has been a member of NACSW since 2012.