Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Key Is Relationships

One of our most important values is building relationships in the community.  If you notice, our mission isn't to fight poverty for our neighbors, but with them.  It comes from following the biblical wisdom of how to treat others, especially those in need.  "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," the Bible tells us.  It's a pretty simple principle, but too often it's ignored because we tend to unconsciously regard those "in need" as inferior and not as our neighbors.  When we do that, we may sacrifice the dignity of those we're trying to help and undermine the good we're trying to do.

Here's how it often works.  First, you find something you want to do to help others (usually something that funders think is important), secure their financial support, and then take your (funded) program to the neighborhood and see who is interested.  (Remember, your future funding depends on people agreeing to accept what you're offering.  In schools, we call that "engagement.")  Unfortunately, one of the most common complaints about this approach is that the ones we're trying to help won't accept or don't appreciate our efforts.  (That's called, "lack of engagement.") 

Let me put it in a different context.  Let's suppose you live in a nice, middle-class neighborhood where crime is low, homes are well-maintained and everybody knows their neighbors. Many nights, as you sit on the front porch, you notice an older couple (let's call them Fred and Edna) walk by your house holding hands, obviously still in love.  Then one night, you notice that you haven't seen this couple in weeks and you ask your neighbor next door where they have gone.  He replies that Edna died several weeks ago and Fred just retreated into his house and hasn't been seen much.  

Filled with compassion, you immediately go to your computer and start doing research on grief counseling.  Then, a few days later, you knock on Fred's door and, eventually, he answers.  You can see by the look on his face, that he's not doing well.  So, you ask if you can come in and when he agrees, you say, "Fred, I'm so sorry to hear about your wife's death.  I've been researching grief and grief counseling and I've found some excellent programs and resources to help you through this period in your life.  Allow me to show you some brochures and help you make some appointments."

Can you imagine saying that to your neighbor?  I don't think so.  Rather, I can imagine you saying, "Fred, I'm so sorry to hear that your wife died.  What can I do to help?"  And then sit back and listen to him.  Why?  Because then you will discover what he needs and what he doesn't need.  And, in the process, you will offer him what he needs most - a caring relationship.  

That's our approach at Urban Connection Austin.  It's why we often say that "resources, without relationships, are invariably wasted."  And it's why we're creating local Family Council meetings at several multi-family complexes in our neighborhood - to be informed, rather than inform.  Perhaps, St. Francis of Assisi said it best when he observed that it was more important to understand others than to be understood (or appreciated) by them.  And, by the way, it's also more effective.

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