Social Justice and Pastoral Care

August 23, 2006

Well, I’m not quite sure where this post is going to go today.

We had a site visit yesterday as part of our new student orientation for seminary.  My assigned site was a local Episcopalian-run homeless day shelter.

A few days prior to the site visit, just to set my mental context for the day, I had a few experiences worth mentioning.  When standing around some of the campus housing talking to some seminarians and their spouses, there was some level of… surprise when a seminarian mentioned that some local homeless people may be using the pool in the middle of the quad for bathing quarters.  My oberservation is that the spouses in particular had a level of fear about homelessness that I’m not judging but observing.  I would imagine that because their children play in this area, there was a concern about some of the side effects we were discussing (human waste, etc.) leading to unclean conditions in the area.  On the other hand, I (only half-jokingly) suggested we put a bar of soap by the pool to see what would happen.

Then I had a conversation immediately prior to the site visit with a seminarian who had spent some time at the shelter as a chaplain.  He told me about some of the issues he faced trying to help folks that he met, and some of the social issues involved in causing homelessness in Austin in the first place.  Apparently from his perspective one of the biggest problems is that prisoners, when they are released, are given $20 and their prison id and told that they can use that id to get work, which isn’t correct.  But to get a driver’s license or state id costs $24 and requires a social security card.  To get a social security card requires a birth certificate.  So there is a whole sequence of events that has to happen before a person can even get an ID to begin looking for work; something I had certainly never thought of.

So it was with these two things in mind that I visited the site yesterday.  I was very much in a “social justice” sort of mindset; prepared to look for ways in which systemic issues could be dealt with, and how the people being served could be humanized instead of being segregated off into the netherworld of “those people.”

We toured the facility, and it was very nice.  It turned out that the food services were minimal, and because there are so many other service offerings in downtown Austin this facility focuses mostly on providing shelter from the weather and fellowship.  Religious services are provided, and a few health services.

At lunch afterwards, when we were discussing our experiences I began my rant about social justice- I noted that this place was fulfilling the immediate need of these people but it seemed to me that there were at least two other needs that were worth examining:  case management to reintegrate people (that want to) back into society, and an exhaustive look at how people fall out of society into this state of poverty in the wealthiest country in the world in the first place so that we can prevent it.

Someone else at the table simply said, “It seems like the main focus of this ministry is to provide community.”

It took a while for that to sink in, but this is really where my point begins…  I have come from an environment where justice issues are the focal point of ministry.  It seemed at times that I was struggling to get people to focus on the pastoral needs of those affected by justice issues because my community was so anxious to solve the justice issue itself that it sometimes forgot to take care of the actual pastoral need of the people affected.  And here I was, doing the exact same thing.  I guess I still have some work to do.

Of course both are important- the suffering never ends if the justice issues aren’t addressed; but the most urgent needs it seems to me are the pastoral needs of those who are affected.  That one comment put that in context for me– the people who are on the street today need community.  Spending time looking for a long-term solution to end poverty in the USA isn’t going to solve the fellowship needs of those people right now.  We have to do both.

Of course that applies to any issue- gay and lesbian inclusion, economic justice, racial equality, and so on.

I’ve been really bothered that I missed this one.  I guess being pulled out of my home context into a new one has thrown me for a little bit of a loop.  But we’re all human and there but for the Grace of God…



2 Responses to “Social Justice and Pastoral Care”

  1. Annette Says:

    Jeff, I’m not sure you’ll even see this, since this was written way back in August, but I just wanted to thank you for that perspective. I’ve gone back to school at age 54 to major in social work. (Feel drawn to ordination, but live in Fort Worth, so don’t know where that’s going to lead). Anyway, as social work majors we are continually reminded that we are to work with oppressed and forgotten people, and not only on micro levels, but on the macro, confronting the injustices and trying to effect change. That can be pretty overwhelming, particularly for someone who has faught the system for many, many years, and who lives in a state that pretty much doesn’t care about the oppressed! All of that is a very long way of saying how much I really appreciate the pastoral perspective you have brought up. It’s one we don’t really think of very often. Blessings on your work!

  2. Jeff Says:

    I did see the comment and thank you.

    It occurs to me today that social justice and pastoral care are really only two different sides of the same coin- and that coin is the currency of our care for humanity and love for each other.

    Peace to you and in your important work,


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