Wednesday, November 12, 2014


12 November 2014

I have worked in the area of community development for most of my life. I have experienced at first hand the journey that this entails for all those involved. It is a journey that confronts the community development worker with life-sapping obstacles such as isolation, poverty, exclusion, poor housing, poor education, lack of life- enhancing opportunities, severe family disruptions, the heavy toll of different addictions and all the other symptoms of systemic dysfunction and malaise. It is a journey in which the worker listens to and builds up relationships with individuals whose personal problems are more than just their own problems. It is a journey in which the worker is invited to negotiate the intertwining circles of the personal, interpersonal, systemic and cosmic levels of life and to make connections between them.
I have also experienced the commitment, passion, spirit, drive and vision of community workers to strive for change for a more just, equal and compassionate society. They are people who are filled with a strong desire to create a sense of community where individuals and families are empowered to grow to their potential, to have their human needs met and to feel that they belong.
These workers are human. Their work is challenging. It is all the more so now, carried out against the background of an ever more emerging neo-liberal value system that favours the strongest and most powerful individuals and corporations at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable; that propagates a privatization process at the expense of what is communitarian and common; that kneels at the feet of the god of consumerism by putting people before profit and that inexorably moves our planet in the direction of ecological collapse.
Community workers are up against it. How can they keep going? What will sustain them? How will they nurture their vision? Where will they get food for the journey? What will prevent them from losing their faith and hope? What will help them to persevere on the long road ahead?
My sense is that community development work is a very spiritual one. It is also my sense that this aspect is not valued, understood or nurtured sufficiently by community development workers or their managers or indeed by the academic institutions that train them. This what I set out to explore in my thesis. I will outline my findings and some proposals arising from them.
A questionnaire among community development workers.
I carried out a questionnaire among the majority of professional community workers in a community – Rialto – in south inner city Dublin, Ireland. I surveyed 33 development workers of a total of approximately 40. Rialto is a community that has long been associated with the different social indicators of poverty. The workers who participated in the questionnaire work with either young people at risk or individuals along with their families struggling with addiction, health problems, housing issues, poor educational attainment, unemployment, anti-social activities, etc. They approach their work from a community development perspective, believing that a holistic response is needed – one that holds that the problems and difficulties that people have are indeed theirs and have to be owned by them and responded to at a personal level but also understand that, all too often, their problems are also systemic and so have to be especially addressed at that level in order for meaningful change to occur.

The purpose of the research after initially getting a sense of their work and qualifications, was to get an insight into - (a) their vision, values and philosophy; (b) what give them energy and hope; (c) what are their challenges to holding on to their vision, etc.; (d) how would they define spirituality? ; (e) accepting the following as a definition of spirituality –‘Spirituality is the relationship between one’s spirit (or that of a group) with all of reality’ (spirit standing for that search for meaning, connection, love, freedom, etc.) -  would they see a role or place for spirituality in their work?; (f) how do they see that role now being expressed; (g) How could that spirituality be better carried out in practical ways their work?; (h) what has been the part of God, religion or specific spirituality in their work?; (I) How do they rate spirituality in their work and what final insights and comments do they have? (See Questionnaire in appendix 1)
The notion of journey has always been associated with the spiritual quest. Carrying out this survey has indeed been a journey for me! This paper is about sharing this journey.
On initially approached, I sensed among the participants a general reluctance and hesitancy to explore the whole area of spirituality. It had to do generally with their association of spirituality with religion. Many referred to a difficultly they had with religion as an institution and that they had moved on from ‘organised religion’. However having explained the purpose of my survey as explained above they were all willing to partake.

My main ‘findings’. (See Appendices 2 - 14 for detailed break-down) The vast majority espoused the values of justice, equality and empowerment and a large proportion alluded to the importance of compassion, empathy and of being non-judgmental. The following were named as the main sources of energy and hope – experiencing people reaching their potential and development and in having trusting and caring relationships. The very clear majority of respondents held that the main challenge to their sense of hope, vision and value system was the external to them. They made reference to government-led austerity packages, bureaucratic and management demands, the capitalist system, etc.  A minority of workers made a reference to internal challenges such as personal difficulties and boundaries.  When asked to attempt a definition of spirituality it was felt generally that it had something to do with peace, love, positivity and awareness. This was further broken down by some who associated it with a sense of connectivity with self, others or nature’.   Others linked it a relationship to a personal God or Higher Power or to a specific spiritual practice. Interestingly when asked if they were happy with the definition of spirituality as noted above and, if so, whether a spirituality, understood in that manner, was relevant to their work and had a role in it, a very conclusive majority answered in the affirmative. They saw that role of spirituality, in the main, being expressed through caring and trusting relationships. A lesser number here referred to practicing different exercises such as having quiet times, awareness, mindfulness and breathing exercises and nurturing rituals. When questioned on what practical steps would help to bring a more spiritual focus on their work, the vast majority made reference to the importance of building-in times for mindfulness, awareness, soul/nourishment days, etc. When asked about the place of God, religion or specific spirituality, many made reference again to their problem with organised religion. While some gained strength and nourishment from an experience with a Personal God and from Christian values many made reference again at this juncture to a spirituality fed by quiet times and awareness exercises. Towards the end of the questionnaire people seemed to come very alive when asked to share a poem, a saying, a book, a person, etc. that were a source of inspiration for them. And they became even more fully animated at the final invitation to add a comment or further insight.

What I have learned
I have had the experience to spend quality time with a group of professional community workers in a given area of Dublin. Their work in the community is intense and is deeply immersed in the drama of people’s lives. They have been engaged in their community work for sustained lengths of time. The average length of time is 14 years. They are very highly experienced and professionally qualified (See Appendix 4). They aspire to the highest values of empowerment and justice and are energised by a sense of hope and by witnessing meaningful change and growth in peoples’ lives. Although initially hesitant and unsure about the place of spirituality in their work they readily accepted the definition of spirituality as the relationship between one’s spirit and all of reality and recognise it, thus understood, as having a central role in their work. Towards the end of the survey the overwhelming majority become enthused about   spirituality and its relationship with community development work and believed that it was an important area to follow up on. There was a recognition that spirituality was inner work and that it needs to be addressed and nurtured. Some areas of caution that stood out for me need note.  Firstly is my sense that the connection between this inner spiritual work and justice/empowerment work was not sufficiently appreciated or owned. Secondly, is the understanding that people’s energy and hope were very much dependent on external factors and forces rather than on inner strengths and resources

Spirituality and Justice Work
And this leads me thus to say something about spirituality and the work of justice and to clarify the link between them.

There are a few different definitions of spirituality that speak to me.  It was the Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino who put forward the above definition of spirituality. It is simply the spirit of a subject – an individual or a group – in its relationship with the whole of reality. Spirit here stands for that dimension in us that allows us to love, to have values, to hope and be free, etc.’ *This relationship involves three aspects, which are fundamental features of any expression or format of spirituality. They are: - a) being totally honest with the reality of life; b) fidelity to this reality and c) being open and willing to be moved by the ‘more than of life” (P.13ff: Jon Sobrino: ‘Spirituality of Liberation – towards political holiness: Orbis books: 1989:) Honesty with reality is the starting point. This honesty with the reality of life is, for example, seen as the bedrock of the 12-step AA programme that is in essence a spiritual journey. ‘We admitted that we are powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable….We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves….’ (Alcoholics Anonymous – The Big Book: New York AA World Services Inc. 1993 and 12 Steps and 12 Traditions: 1991) When you embrace the reality of life you become aware of an invite to say yes to what is life- affirming and no to what is life-denying. This then leads to the second aspect. Saying yes to what is positive and no to what is negative comes at a cost. This cost calls for perseverance and persistence. As Calvin Coolidge put it – ‘nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race’. Sobrino refers to the third dimension as the ‘willingness to be carried along by the ‘more than of reality’. When we say yes to life, following an honest encounter with reality and persevere in our faithfulness to this choice of life, we accept or intuit that there is ‘more to life’ than we can see. There is hope. But this hope is not just a passive sentiment. It calls for active involvement and partnership on our part. Mackey speaking of this in biblical images says that the ‘one true divine Creator creates all creatures so as to be co-creators with God and with and of the others’. (P.96: James Mackey: Christianity and Creation: Continuum: 2006 :) Although ‘we truly hope for the life of the world only if we bestow life on the world’, we are also swept along by life’s gift of transcendence – ‘the more than of life’. (ibid, Sobrino: p.19). To say that this hope is an active one is to say that it is fundamentally all about love and compassion.

I have also found Sandra Schneider’s definition of spirituality very insightful and helpful. (P. 73: Beyond Patching: faith and feminism in the Catholic Church: Paulist Press: 1991 :) She understands it as ‘the experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms, not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives. The essential elements are – (a) a conscious decision and effort; (b) to embark on a journey, involving life integration leading to the experience of self-transcendence; (c) by means of a commitment and faithfulness to an ultimate cause and its values.

Finally, I like what Mike Bells writes on Spirituality. It is, he says, a place within us where we ponder the great questions of life; where we learn to have dreams and visions; where we encounter reality and relevance; where we give full reign to our consciousness and mindfulness; where we practice prayer or draw on concepts or images of the inner world; where we go to for strength and courage, especially in times of critical transitions in life. It is a place of ritual and deep and meaningful celebration of life; a place to foster hope and lastly and especially a place of connection and communion.  (P. 9: Cosmology and the Ecozoic Society: Cosmology and the Ecozoic Society: Number 1: 2008. – a publication of the Centre of Ecozoic Studies)

And now to add something about Community and Community Development Work. The following summary is one that the questionnaire participants would be happy with.

·       “Radical community Development Work is committed to collective action for social and environmental justice.
·       This begins in a process of empowerment through critical consciousness, and grows through participation in local issues.
·       A critical approach calls for an analysis of power and discrimination in society.
·       The analysis needs to be understood in relation to dominant ideas and the wider political context.
·       Collective action, based on this analysis, focuses on the root causes of discrimination rather than on the symptoms.” (P.1: Margaret Ledwith: Community Development – A critical approach: The Policy Press: 2007)

Mike Bells beautifully describes community development in a less academic way by saying that it is a process “that helps a community become healthy through the strengthening or restoration of primary relationships. It does this by building the community’s capacity to recognize and build upon its strengths, plan for its future and deal with its problems”. By primary relationships he means the relationships of individuals and groups with the land, the universe, with their inner spirit and aspirations, with one’s family, community, and organizations and institutions. He names this as the Spirit Paradigm of community development. (P. 34f: The Changing Face of Community Development in the North: From the Power Paradigm to the Spirit Paradigm: An Essay: Inukshuk Management Consultants: 1999)

Community development is basically all about a process or a journey with the aim to bring about change, equality and justice. It requires deep listening, dialogue, participation, consciousness-raising, empowerment, partnership, self-help, a bottom-up approach and shared leadership. It calls for constant reflective action. It is energised by people who are committed to a more just world, have deep values concerning justice, equality and empowerment. It calls for creativity, imagination and clarity of purpose. Vision, compassion and hope are central. A methodology and a belief in a whole systems approach, embracing the personal, interpersonal and wider world dimensions is essential. And lastly the practitioner is called to be the change that he or she is advocating and championing.

It is clear to me that there is a big cross-over between spirituality and community development work. They are both concerned with journey and process. Sobrino named honesty, fidelity and persistence and an accompanied hope as basic elements of all spirituality. They are too key elements in community work. All of the respondents, despite their initial hesitancy and uncomfortableness with linking spirituality with their work, enthusiastically embraced his definition of spirituality as the relationship between the spirit - (understand as the dimension in us that allows for the search for meaning, integrity and connection and it is about loving and being free) - of an individual or of a group with all of reality.  As the questionnaire proceeded all the respondents became more alive and enthusiastic in exploring this spiritual dimension of their work. (See especially appendix 12 and 13.) Schneiders’ take on spirituality as the conscious decision to integrate one’s life not in terms of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one preserves, is seen very much in the very high value that was placed by the workers in their striving for justice, equality and compassion. They were themselves empowered and transformed by experiencing the deep change and growth of others.

*Spirituality, like community development, is all about connecting and relating. Mystics are those who have a heightened sense of unity and oneness. A modern mystic Willigis Jager says that true humanism can never be achieved in a technical, mechanistic and commandments-based way but ‘only through a mystical experience of our unity with all of existence’. And he goes on to hold that while we all need rules and the acceptance of responsibilities in order to live sensible in society, rules are not enough. ‘A true transformation of the human being can only come from the depths of our being’. (P. XV111: Willigis Jager: Mysticism for Modern Times: Liguori/Triumph: 2006:) I have referred above to self-transcendence and the ‘more than of life’ and the link between them and the efforts at integration at personal,  societal and environmental levels; being honest with what is real, perseverance and partnering hope. The Centre for Action and Contemplation, in Albuquerque and associated with Richard Rohr, advocates a simple message –  the work of justice that the world is crying out for needs to be carried out and accompanied by a contemplative practice. My understanding of this is that the ‘doing of justice’, the working for change at structural levels needs to embrace the following – personal transformation; avoidance of the dualistic mentality and ‘either/or’ philosophy that lies behind many of our world difficulties and acceptance of a universe that is understood in a holistic manner – where the whole is not the sum of the different parts, where mystery and wonder is honoured and where there is space for ‘both/and’ and paradox. Community development work needs this kind of spirituality. Bell bring them nicely together. In doing so he makes a distinction between the Power Paradigm and Spirit Paradigm of community development. 

Power Paradigm
Spirit Paradigm
A place
A relationship
A developed community
An economically developed community
A Healthy community
Characteristics of a developed community
Jobs, business, infrastructure, services, control of services, economic opportunities
Strong primary relationships in balance: relations with the land, one’s individual spirit, the family, organizations (including workplaces), etc...
Obstacles to Development
Lack of resources and control over resources
Social conflict, illness, addictions, loss of identity, loss of culture and spirituality, inadequate knowledge and learning.
Acquire power and resources to develop jobs and business; control of service sector
Renew Spirit an strengthen primary relationships through healing, learning and personal development
Identify problems and work out solutions
Identify assets and build capacity
Organizational structures
Determined by the requirements of government or corporate systems – Form follows Function
Ideally, determined or at least influenced by the requirements of culture and tradition –
Form follows Spirit.
Prerequisite for success
Education and Training
Knowledge and Learning”
(ibid: P.39)

The power paradigm of community development is of course needed for educational and employment purposes and for provision of other basic human needs. The Spirit Paradigm however covers aspects that the Power Paradigm does not or is not able to deal with. It emphasises building community rather than building communities. Instead of developing services and business it develops relationships so that people can properly avail of them. “In a word, the Spirit Paradigm is all about capacity building, so that people can develop their own communities. It spends its energies developing the essential capacities of visioning, leadership, learning and healing. It links the development of the community to pride in its past, recognition and respect for its present capacities, and a realistic hope in the future”. This is very akin to that understanding of community development of my respondents.
This type of community development needs to be accompanied by a spirituality. The community development of my interviewees is all about relationships, compassionate listening and dialogue, centrality of visioning and a holding of values of justice and equality. It demands persistence, courage and risk-taking. It is not easy work. It demands a lot of energy and inner strength. People are human and can burn out. The respondents strongly sensed this towards the end of the questionnaire by stating overwhelming that there was a need for the setting aside of spaces and times within the workplace for inner work, mindfulness, breathing practices and periods of reflection and contemplation. (See appendix 11.) Their final comments spoke eloquently and enthusiastically about the importance of developing spaces and places for a spirituality in their community work. (Appendix 12 and 13.) This is all the more important in light of their overwhelming understanding of the biggest challenges they faced in their work. They saw their most serious threats as residing outside of them – in the ‘system’, the demands of bureaucracy, etc. This, all the more, emphasises and underlines the great need for them build on their inner strengths. Spirituality would address this. This inner work will also bring them to that place where all are equal. It will provide the base for personal transformation and change. It will hold them in that space of unity and compassion. It will provide the platform needed to be fired for justice work and for sustenance in it. It calls for a planned response from both workers and managers. It calls for spirituality to be embraced, planned for and accepted as a core element in community development work.

Some suggestions, pointers and proposals into the future.

Community development is about journey and process as is spirituality. My proposals arising from my study and survey are to be undertaken also as a journey. I see them as something emerging. I will keep them short and simple. I share them with a sense of expectancy.
1.    Developing and experimenting with a spirituality practice with Rialto Youth Project, (RYP) Rialto, Dublin. RYP works with young people at risk in the community. It was founded in 1981. It has 15 professional youth workers. It is managed by a voluntary management committee, of which I am a member. As a project, it places a lot of emphasis on art and creativity, music, dance, street performance, story-telling and a range of after-school activities. It is pioneering linkages between the informal and formal education systems. Its political commitments arise from a belief in equality and a need to challenge social injustice. Its culture is non-hierarchical and values the providing of a safe, welcoming space. It’s eight ways of doing things are -cooperation and collaboration; the power of art and creativity; critical reflection and evaluation; best practice and what works; learning through risk taking, value of process; a needs orientated approach and that as a project they are a work in progress.

Following carrying out the questionnaire, the manager of the RYP requested that I work with his team to develop a spirituality for the project and to oversee and facilitate the process. My hope is that we may develop a model of best practice in the area of spirituality and community work. I am happy to be embarking on this journey and am looking forward to what will emerge and to what it will led to in subsequent conversations with other community organisations. I regard this proposal as my basic one. It will be a time of learning, experimentation, a spiritual journey and a pointer to practical ways forward in the intersection between spirituality and community development. It will also inform the subsequent suggestions.

2.    Initiating conversations with Institutions and Universities that train and educate community development workers. It is my understanding that spirituality does not feature much, if at all, in their teaching methodology and practice.  I will be advocating for and promoting its inclusion.
3.    Promotion of the centrality of The Universe Story as a key feature of community development work and spirituality. Justice work needs be positioned against the background of creation, evolution and environmental issues. There is a vital need in religion to adapt its concepts and language about God and the divine in the light of scientific and evolutionary insights. The language of community work must likewise adapt. Many of the participants made reference to a spirituality that involves connecting more with nature. The Big Story of our universe needs to become ever more central to justice work.  We can no longer do justice work without doing nature work. Working for a sustainable environment and for the preservation of our universe is essentially a task of spirituality and of justice. They are intrinsically linked. I intend to take every opportunity to highlight the connection between community development work, justice work and The Universe Story.

4.    Facilitation and development of meaningful life-celebrations and rituals for community development organisations and community groups. I have been involved for many years in a ministry that has involved facilitating community ‘soul-days’, yearly ‘Friends Remembering Friends’ in honour of the vast number of young people who have died in the community because of drugs and AIDs related illnesses, contemplative sessions and breathing practices. I plan to continue this ministry. (See appendix 14 for some sample work.)

5.    Nurturing my own specific spirituality in the Christian Community by facilitating participative Eucharists, by promoting at every opportunity and from a Christian perspective the link between contemplation and social activism, by honouring the memory of Jesus that is both sacred and subversive and helping to realise the Kingdom of God message of Jesus, which Diarmuid O’Murchu says is best translated as ‘the companionship of empowerment’.

Ending with a story………….
I very recently participated in an interview panel for a youth worker post with the Rialto Youth Project. ‘Seamus’ was one of the interviewees. He told us how he got into the youth worker field. He had his own business and had people working for him. He had property and money. By chance he was invited to attend an open community event for young people. Following an encounter there with a troublesome young person, something stirred within him. He became unsettled. In time he left his life-style behind. He walked away from his comfort zone. We went to college and became a community youth worker. He told us that following his initial experience with that troublesome young person at the community day, he became aware ‘of an unpolished diamond’ within himself. He has come to understand his journey as the process of polishing that diamond and doing the same for others. He spoke eloquently of empowering young people and of the importance of understanding their lives from a systemic perspective. He was on fire with compassion, hope and love. It all came from that diamond within. Polishing that diamond is what spirituality is all about. It is about coming into that space within – at a personal level. It is also about coming into that space that we share in common. In some mysterious way what is most true of me is most true of all. I see my ministry as helping to polish that ‘inner diamond’. The above proposals are practical ways to do so. It is a journey and I am looking forward to it. I started on a quest and it is leading me on another one. 
(This article is from Tony Mac Carthaigh's Doctor of. Ministry Project and published with permission of author)

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