In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer- Albert Camus
At NACSW’s virtual Convention 2020 in November, I was part of an informal lunch dialogue focused on how Christians in social work and Christian organizations were responding to the pandemic. Central topics raised included: obstacles that organizations were facing, sources of strength and resources, and what Christian social workers might need to consider. I was designated a listener and holder of space in this conversation. Not surprisingly, we began by speaking about loss.
As individuals introduced themselves, each began to talk first from their own varied emotions over the last few months. We spoke of the bewilderment, crisis, changing states of awareness, sense of timelessness, and mostly, of the loss. Some spoke of the waves that would appear to batter unrelentingly as almost every facet of our lives were shifted dramatically in the early weeks of COVID-19. Many of us found ourselves emerging from each breaker, saying- Are you okay? Am I okay? Institutions, ideas about presence, connections and routines changed overnight. In the midst of this disruption, we brought our own vulnerabilities – chronic conditions, age, caretaking responsibilities, and loved ones at high risk. We spoke about walking a journey of progressive cycles of grief similarly described in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of loss – denial, anger, our bargaining, sometimes depression, and acceptance and back again.
However, a signature quality of social workers is that we aren’t content to stay in that place for long. As outlined in our ethical code, our primary responsibility and rallying force is to first and foremost promote clients’ well-being. The discussion in our group shifted to awareness of the changing needs of those we serve. Unique obstacles arose within particular areas of practice, as information and guidance changed quickly and a paradigm shift from the gold standard of how social workers have always practiced best (face to face) occurred as we struggled to make technology work as an extension of our presence. A new question, often uncomfortable for social workers, arose – How do we take care of ourselves so we can sustain taking care of others? Finally, others spoke of the clarion call for reckoning that the pandemic had brought to Christian social workers. The thin veil obscuring significant inequalities facing many in our country had lifted with harsh clarity. While the nature of a pandemic virus means every person will face some loss, we grappled with knowledge that the most vulnerable groups met multiple and compounding losses. Many spoke of the collective trauma of seeing black and brown communities affected by the virus at disproportionate rates while the news was flooded with events of police brutality. Questions about wellness – what is it to be well in the pandemic, and how to create this for ourselves and others, rose to the surface quickly. Organizations serving the poorest struggled under the weight of demand while straining to protect their staff and volunteers’ health and safety. These echo the call to our profession described in the Grand Challenges for Social Work pages, to which a new section focuses on resources in the pandemic – https://grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/covid-19-resources/.
Then, as our long history of social work bears witness to, we began to innovate. Indeed, many mentioned- there was no other way, and not meeting urgent needs was not an option. One by one, individuals spoke of the continuum of ways their organization or group adapted to meet a host of needs, sometimes reluctantly, in makeshift ways and sometimes seeing an opportunity in crisis. One organization described how their afterschool program became a learning community for children in virtual school and their food pantry became a takeout meal site. Another person spoke of engaging college students, who were displaced from internships, universities and work, and connecting them with elders and young children in need of support, also homebound. Yet another member spoke of their private practice now being almost wholly devoted to compassion fatigue assistance as medical staff and front line workers sought counseling to deal with the reality of desperate shortages, fear over infecting family, overrun hospitals and caring for patients who had no one else to walk them into their final moments. Another spoke of domestic violence crisis lines set up in the homes of advocates so they could continue to answer the call for safety. Others spoke of marching in protest to police brutality and racial injustice in our country.
As we closed, we wondered aloud together – What does the world need to hear from Christian social workers as we move forward in this global pandemic? We came to some consensus as to what our road ahead may require. We urgently need for Christian social work leaders to speak into federal guidance on approaching the complexity of our response to widespread societal problems. We need bravery, for each individual-community and organization, to peel back the layers to address legacies of inequality, white supremacy, and trauma interwoven in our communities. We need to have opportunities, space, and empowerment to care for ourselves as we sustain our caring for others; to negotiate the dance of well-being in the face of some of the most challenging risks to it. We need to hone our signature “technology” of social work, which is the ability to gather in community to be adaptive, innovative, and multidisciplinary in our approaches. Finally, we need to share that our God, our hope against hope, the source of our continuous and most invincible summer, presides over the deepest winter we may have known.
Caroline Campbell has been a social worker for 18 years in community based nonprofit social services, and currently Senior Lecturer at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. She has been a member of NACSW since 2014. <Note: Caroline’s sister, Stephanie Campbell, painted the beautiful image at the beginning of this post.>