I’ve been called to a ministry of accompaniment that means I have chosen to walk with one or two people or a family, serially, one after the other, to be a support for whatever it is that they are going through. To me, emergent church in the world looks like the ministry of accompaniment. Grounded in scripture, I cling to Jesus’ new commandment to love others as Jesus loves me; by this I will be known as his disciple. [John 13:34-5]
In the past, our accompaniment has been to families with immigration issues—undocumented status with no work permits to earn an income, no money to pay rent, and no transportation. Giving money for filing immigration paperwork, offering small handyperson jobs around our house, driving people to doctor’s appointments and paying for them—these are all helpful and necessary kinds of assistance.
But the one helpful gesture most cherished by the ones my husband and I have helped has been our friendship and our love. We think of the ministry of accompaniment as basically adopting the people we are helping into our family and incorporating them into a family system that has relationships, responsibilities, and sacrifices. They are no longer outsiders or “the other,” but they are part of us. We become responsible for them, and they become responsible to us, also.
We care not only about the status of their immigration filings, but we also care that they get to a dentist when they have a toothache, that they learn English, and that they aren’t isolated and lonely. We share US American holiday practices like Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and the Fourth of July, especially if there are children in the family, because we know that cultural capital is as important as earned income. I still remember what it was like growing up in an immigrant home, struggling to make sense out of the US American cultural memes that public school in Detroit, Michigan, proffered. I did not have the benefit of a cultural interpreter to help me acculturate, and I try to offer that resource as part of my ministry of accompaniment.
One adopted family member was a highly educated medical professional in her home country; yet, navigating US American doctors’ appointments, the payment systems, and the lack of medical insurance was daunting when coupled with rudimentary English language skills and the stress of an undocumented status. In accompanying another, there are many intersections where one is called to help in ways that are unpredictable and small, but important, in terms of the dignity of the individual and her journey to personal agency, the legal and legitimate status of being recognized as an individual with rights and protections.
Our most recent “adoptees” are a couple of twenty-somethings who have fallen on hard times through some choices that didn’t pan out. Even with family members distantly in the picture, these young people have found themselves struggling to keep ahead of the domino effect of one overdue driving ticket, one late car payment, one too many absences from work due to poor health, pushing them to the ground, with all their supports pulled out from under them.
Part of accompanying these young people has been lots of conversation of the kind with which they don’t have any experience. We act as part parent and part mentor, teaching some of the common sense thinking and logic that didn’t get taught by their actual parents to prepare them for adulthood. We talk about the priorities in living independently, saving and personal sacrifice, deferred gratification, compromise, setting and achieving short-term goals, and communication. We model steadiness in our promises, our love, and our support. Affirmation and listening are everyday tools.
Each accompaniment feels like a new adoption, because it’s about getting to know someone or a family from a new beginning. We know that it’s a long-term commitment, often years in the making, as we walk together through progress step-by-step, occasional backslides and failures that trigger restarts, and recommitments on everyone’s part. It would be easy to give up, but I don’t think that’s the call—that is, to go forward until it gets too hard. I think the call is to go forward together until you all agree that you have gotten where you were headed.
The greatest need I see in those whom we have accompanied is the need to believe in the power of love. For so many people, their families of origin have disappointed them. It has become hard for them to believe that they deserve love and the fruits of love, which are affirmation of one’s dignity as a human being, being deemed trustworthy, and being relied upon to do the right thing.
I know at least several friends who have been called into this ministry of accompaniment, including people who are spiritual but not religious. What I see in each of my friends’ lives is long-term relationships that look a lot like an adoption, but isn’t in any technical or legal sense. These relationships are marked by mutual love and interdependence in the recognition of each other as full family members. We, the accompaniers, are as blessed by these relationships as the ones whom we accompany. Love does that—it blesses all whom it connects.
- What would church look like if church adopted the people who came into its relationships, responsibilities, and sacrifices?
- Is the language that church uses to describe its family—”members”—helpful or a hindrance in the way we think about those who come and join?
- What would church look like if we had a truly long-term outlook, like an adoption, that spans many years, a lifetime even, and often costs more in resources than you can readily afford, resources that you gladly give?