Seeing, Listening, Belonging

The Centre for Theology & Community l

In the first of a series of blogs by summer interns on our Urban Leadership School, Florence Gildea reflects on her experience of community organising at St George-in-the-East.

Since beginning the internship, I have been reflecting on what it means to see, and to be seen, to listen, and feel listened to, and to belong, in public life. Those are often experiences associated with the private sphere, but I cannot help but wonder if political disengagement and populism would be roads less travelled if people felt their voices were respected by politicians and that their stories carried the seeds of hope and transformation.  Moreover, through the lens of my Christian faith, I see community organising as offering a way of using power in a way that, like Jesus’ ministry, puts listening, recognition, and empowerment centre-stage.

So often Jesus did not speak first: others came to him with their questions, and He asked his own in return, encouraging his listeners to probe their own hearts. He did not micro-manage those He healed or who gathered around Him: having been changed by a sense of love, grace and belonging, many were empowered to remain in their communities, leading lives that were both the same and utterly transformed. The Magi see in the baby Jesus a King, and then return home. After meeting Jesus, the woman at the well, previously estranged from her community, returns to it, emboldened to share the gospel. Transformation spreads as Jesus breathes grace into individual lives and then lets each one work out what this good news means for their home, their work, their community, rather than blessing one particular lifestyle.

There are parallels to be drawn with community organising, and the notion that Jesus’ life can teach us a way of being human but also a way of leading and affecting social change is one which inspires awe in me. As we learned on our training with Citizens UK, everything about community organising is rooted in one-to-ones, in which people feel heard to and hence inspired to act. We do not speak first, assume we know the solution and implement it from a safe remove from ordinary life. Like the incarnation, we meet people where they are, not for photo-ops, but out of respect for the dignity of the individual, and out of faith in the transformational power of relationships. And, like Jesus who commissioned the Church to be part of building His kingdom on earth, community organisers invest in people as potential leaders, nursing their passions and talents, so that they can affect change for themselves. But, again like the incarnation, this reliance on people feels vulnerable. It takes humility to listen to others, and then trust to commission and send them out.

If I were God, I would definitely choose to make policy from a distant cloud, enforce compliance, and guard my heart. But I am unbelievably thankful that Jesus chose a more difficult, painful and ultimately deadly path, because it was the one which recognised, respected, and affirmed the dignity of others. I had hoped that I would learn new skills as a result of this internship; but I have been caught off-guard by how it has enriched my understanding of God and moved me to worship.


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