“Our world is captivated by speed. We want to abolish world hunger or solve the AIDS crisis in Africa. And we want to do it fast. To be valid, hope has to make the headlines, have sweeping ambitions, pack stadiums, make its way onto television or produce miracles and prosperity. Campaigns organize around grand promises of ‘Overcoming Violence’ and ‘Ending Poverty’... The faster all this happens, the better.”
So say Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, an African and an American, writing to a Western audience. Now contrast their words with these observations of an Alongsider mentor:
"My little brother is starting to change in character. He is cleaner now. He never used to wash his hands before eating. I encouraged him to do that, because then he can stay healthy, study well, and improve his life. He tried to change, but it’s a slow process. It takes time for him to be aware, so that even if no one is looking he will take care of himself. I invited him to church, and he came to know Jesus. But I’m not sure if his heart has really changed. What I do is to love him consistently, and I think he will come to understand the love of Jesus. It’s a process that takes time."
The transformation that matters to us is local. You could say ALL authentic transformation is local. It's easy to speak confidently about change from a distance, or on a global scale. But from up close - locally, and at the margins - transformation is "slow and fragile."
Alongsiders Cambodia works in marginalized communities where time is measured in seasons and years. Little brothers and sisters, and even their mentors, are weak in the eyes of the world - if the world notices them at all.
Meanwhile, Alongsiders International is building partnerships in new countries. With a simple, strong vision and reproducible systems, we're in position to move quickly and see the lives of thousands of children and mentors touched in the next few years.
Honestly, which paragraph above stirs you the most?
We must ask ourselves how to keep the allure and excitement of speed and numbered results from undermining the slow, transforming work of Alongsider mentors at the local level. Many good organizations have failed this test.
Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12, writes that people who are poor, vulnerable, or weak in the eyes of the world are "indispensable to the church." But he adds, "Who really believes it?"
We believe Alongsider mentors and their little brothers and sisters are indispensable, not just locally but for Alongsiders International as a whole. Together we are more capable; we are more insightful; and together we stay on the path of transformation.
We choose to embrace people who are poor and marginalized at the center of our organization. We are local. We are relational. We are committed long term. That's easy enough to say. Here are three ways we try to make this our reality.
- LOCATING OURSELVES AMONGST THE POOR Our headquarters are situated on a dusty back street in a working neighborhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, close to where Alongsider mentors and their little brothers and sisters live. We deliberately chose Phnom Penh over being based in a world-class city closer to where our donors live.
- EMBRACING SILENCE & PRAYER Everyone in our international office eats together at least three times a week, and we take turns cleaning up together afterward. There is no hierarchy around the table. Afterwards, we join together in a short time of silence and prayer. Sitting in silence, even for short periods of time, is a great equalizer. We encounter our brokenness in silence, and we disarm the "gods" of speed and their anxious chatter.
- LEARNING FROM THE MARGINS In multiple ways we seek to make the local Alongsiders - both mentors and little brothers and sisters - our teachers. We do this by listening to their stories, working together, visiting them in their communities, and joining together in celebrations (such as our annual Alongsiders Camp).
Jean Vanier challenges us with these words, "When the poor and the weak are present," he says, "they prevent us from falling into the trap of power - even the power to do good - of thinking that it is we who are the good ones, who must save the Savior and his church."
This article is republished from the Alongsiders website.
Andy Gray is a talented wordsmith and photographer who has been our main blogger and the author of Alongsiders first book, The Alongsiders Story. Andy worked in Cambodia helping young people transition from orphanages to living in the community.
Cited: Reconciling All Things, by Katongole and Rice, p 80-81 and Living Gently in a Violent World, by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, p 74, 98