Last night I put in my two hours at the pro-life pregnancy center where I volunteer, and it was a real mixed bag. I know I did some good work, but I can’t stop thinking about my first client, who needed something very different from what I initially tried to give her.
Obviously I can’t use any identifying details, but she was in her teens (and in fact explicitly called herself “a teen parent,” as a shorthand for saying, “so you know that my life is kind of chaotic right now”) and she was still together with the father of her one-year-old, a ridiculously bright, friendly little girl. She was an attentive mother, firm but obviously in love with her baby. Her relationship with the girl’s father seemed shakier, but they were still sexually active. And she went to a local Protestant church.
So I, like well-meaning teachers throughout history, tried to talk to her about her life. I talked about waiting for marriage, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, this is what God wants for your life, and she completely tuned me out. Like, she wasn’t impolite or anything, but it was obvious that what I was saying was totally irrelevant to her. After a little bit of this she handed me the list of stuff she needed for her kid, a pretty clear way of saying, “This is what I’m here for.”
And I caught myself and thought, What are you even doing? What is wrong with you that you’re approaching her this way? Slow your roll! So I started asking a bit about her churchgoing, and it turned out that she basically went because someone else she cared about dragged her along. I asked some more questions about that relationship, and started talking about how often we do things just because we think we should, just to check off the box on the to-do list. I pointed out that I often run my own spiritual life this way: Got to go to church, got to pray, etc. (In fact, I had run the earlier part of our counseling session this way. Not sure if she picked up on the implicit self-critique there, but she was clearly quite sharp, so maybe.) She was listening more at this point, so I suggested that she talk with her churchgoing friend about why they were doing this. What’s the point of church? What’s the point of trying to be closer to God?
This did a little bit to repair the damage I’d done by my earlier blundering, Christianity is a system of ethics, let me tell you how to run your life, kind of approach. I think it opened some avenues that I can walk down with her the next time I see her. And I think we will see her again, because of all the other stuff I did: praising her kid and her parenting, listening to her expressed needs and trying to meet them, hugging her. She said that we needed to send people to her school, to talk to all the teen parents there, so I think I was able to convey–eventually!–my personal care for her. But the most explicitly “witnessing” stuff I did was by far the least helpful and least loving part of our encounter.
Basically what I’m saying is that I am the person the Pope has been talking to, in both of his recent interviews, when he says stuff like, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” There are things in the most recent interview which I have no interest in defending. The whole “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” bit seems really clumsy at best, and it’s hard to see how it could be purely a translation issue. [ETA: Yeah uh, that interview turned out to be an after-the-fact paraphrase by a guy who wasn't taking notes. So ignore this bit!] But even that passage comes out of an underlying spirit which doesn’t shy away from conflict or from missionary work, but which does approach people as individuals, not types, and seeks to walk beside them toward God rather than trying to win a debate or achieve some outcome in the other person’s life.
This is a really difficult position to hold. It makes you complicit, in a certain way, in the other person’s beliefs and sins. At the pregnancy center we have pretty clear, firm moral beliefs, and even when we’re applying them in a more “harm reduction”-like way, we still have clarity on what constitutes “harm” and which actions might reduce that harm. We’re dealing with questions of life and death, and every time I go there I encounter people grappling with guilt, hopelessness, and suffering, sometimes standing on the verge of grave sin.
And yet if I approach them with the goal of achieving an outcome, even if the outcome is saving a child’s life (or, to take another frequent example, leaving an abusive partner), it is much harder for me to listen to them and help them find the hope and courage which would make that outcome actually imaginable for them. It’s all too easy to come across as someone who “owns” faith, who has something that the other person in the counseling room doesn’t have, and who wants to share it–an uninvited gift!–so that we can be on the same team, or so that the other person will do what I want or what I think best. It’s much harder to look at the other person and see her, see the fullness of her situation, through a Christian lens: to see her unique loves, fears, and challenges, and see how the Cross and Resurrection speak to those utterly individual experiences. It takes a lot longer to do it that way, too! And meanwhile the 7:30 client is waiting.
I don’t always agree with or even understand the way Pope Francis expresses his beliefs. But last night I found myself thinking that his America interview explained pretty clearly what I’d done wrong with my first client. I had not approached her like a nurse in a field hospital. I’m going to try to keep that image, and his overall approach of “accompany[ing people] with mercy” rather than explaining the rules, at the forefront of my mind as I work with clients in the future.
After my clients had gone home, I caught a ride to the Metro with a couple of counselors-in-training. One of them asked if the learning curve was as steep as their training made it seem: Do you ever get good at it? She definitely asked me at the right time! I laughed ruefully and said that I’ve never gotten good at it, and the moment I begin to get used to talking about something, it begins to sound rote. It disconnects itself from the life of the individual client, and becomes just a machine I’m trying to use to produce an outcome: Put Play-Doh in at one end, squeeze Christian disciple out at the other. “Ooh,” she said, dismayed. Uh, the good news is that every day is an adventure? But yeah, at least for me, I doubt I’ll ever get good at it. I’ll always need to stay raw, because if I get polished or practiced or adequate I stop attending closely to my clients, and stop depending entirely on God.