October is always a busy month. My theory is that everyone gets settled into their schoolyear routines, but the holidays haven’t hit yet, so that’s when everyone and their dogs plan events. A similar thing happens in April, come to the think of it. Janet and I wrapped up the busy month of October with a visit to Houston. While many were in town for Harvey relief or to gear up for the World Series, we went for the No Need Among You conference put on by the Texas Christian Community Development Network.
The two-and-a-half-day conference featured a full line-up of solid keynote speakers and a wide range of workshops. Every year, the gathering attracts groups from across the state, from church food pantries to city-wide development nonprofits. Imagine a church building swarming with people–mostly those employed to “care” for others–all looking for and sharing best practices and philosophies of how to care better.
This was my third NNAY conference, and by now, I’m starting to notice some common refrains that I’d like to share.
- No one has this completely figured out. There’s a reason that nearly 600 people come to these conferences for advice and encouragement every year: it’s hard. Walking alongside the poor, making their concerns our concerns–it’s all so contextual, so dependent on real people and messy relationships. Blanket answers just aren’t available. But there is value in the conversation and hearing what other folks are trying out.
- We have inherited some unhealthy practices. When it comes to charity work, a history of handouts has robbed a good deal of folks of their dignity. While relief work is vital in emergencies, neighbors deserve the dignity of being listened to and having chronic issues met with development, instead of relief. For more on this see Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity.
- Relocation IS a best practice. Though only a fraction of NNAY attendees live in the areas they work, becoming a neighbor does help us form the kind of relationships that don’t depend on hierarchy or handouts. By being neighbors we can listen better and more easily see the good that happens unreported all around us.
Speaking of Robert Lupton, he was one of the conference’s keynote speakers this year. He summed up his decision to relocate rather matter-of-factly: “I started working with troubled youth. It didn’t take long before I realized I couldn’t work effectively with youth without working with their families. So I went back to school to learn how to work with families. Then I realized I couldn’t work with families without addressing their environment. And obviously, the best way to work in the environment is to become part of the neighborhood.” For some comfort-shattering stories of Bob’s early years in inner-city Atlanta, pickup Theirs is the Kingdom.
- Justice matters. The final keynote speaker (and probably my favorite) at the conference was Michelle Warren. “Justice is not only about consequences,” Warren shared, “It is a pendulum that must also swing to opportunity.” The author of The Power of Proximity related how it wasn’t any left-leaning politics that led her to become a social justice advocate; it was her decision to “[roll] out of bed every morning trying to be a good neighbor that set off a whole chain of events” toward advocacy.
The NNAY conferences I have attended in the past have featured workshops on setting up legal aid clinics, payday lending research, and racial injustice. These types of topics are not the center of the conversation. Loving our neighbors is the center of the conversation. But these topics come up because they affect our neighbors far more often than they should.
I am proud to be part of an organization that believes in living where we work. I enjoy the tough conversations about what ways we help and in what ways we might be hurting. I feel the pull toward justice as I roll out of bed and see what my neighbors see. In some ways, it is easy to get discouraged because there is so much work to be done and no one seems to know exactly how it should be done. However, at the very least, it is uplifting to remember that there are others across the state and the country who try to wield the power of helping in responsible ways. I believe there are those types of people across Abilene, too.
Here’s a free online synopsis of Toxic Charity.