This book was like an old friend, who is far wiser than you, but willing to stop and help you along. I felt both affirmed and challenged as I read. Affirmed in my belief that community and relationship must be central to working alongside neighbors marginalized by poverty, addiction, and mental illness. But challenged by the fact that believing that, and living that out, are two different things. I discovered a deep sadness within me as a read, realizing how often I had put all of the other elements of being a pastor ahead of the simple call to come alongside people. But it was a sadness that was full of hope, as I saw the challenging but beautiful simplicity of what Rennebohm was calling us to: companionship with other human beings on this journey of life.
Though this book was full of many things that are worthy of reflection, I want to focus on two things in particular, that have had an impact on me even in the short time since I finished the book. One is the beautiful idea of companionship that Rennebohm lays out. And the other is the idea of “circles of care” that we can be a part of creating in our communities.
Companionship is central to what Rennebohm is talking about throughout this book. The simple yet profound act of walking with someone through the challenges of life. As Rennebohm says, “The aim is not to fix things; it is simply to be together, to be present for one another. Companionship is an unfolding and growing relationship, a way of sharing the world together (72).” This is so important to remember. I am one of those pastors that seems to function well when there is something to fix. I often have a very difficult time just slowing down and truly being present. Though being someone who can get things done effectively has it’s place in the church, it can become a hinderance to pastoral care, and this book was a kind yet constant reminder that simply being present is so much more important that how many people I helped today.
Rennebohm describes four key elements of companionship: Offering Hospitality, Walking Side By Side, Listening, and Accompaniment. He weaves these together to paint a beautiful picture of mutual care and support. Hospitality, he shows, is about created space with another. It goes beyond simply welcoming people into your physical location, but creating what he calls sacred space, where someone is welcomed without judgment. From that place you can begin to walk side by side. Rennebohm says that, unlike sitting across from someone, side by side is the natural position of journeying together. It models a relationship of equality, where we walk at the same pace, where questions about where we are headed are discussed, not ordered from one of the parties. Which is why listening is so important on this journey. Though hearing is a part of our daily lives, truly listening often happens few and far between. Where we seek not simply to hear another person, but to understand them. Where we can listen to all that is happening in that moment, and not simply the words being spoken. And to listen for hope. Which brings us to accompaniment, where in both physical, spiritual, and metaphorical ways, we commit to journeying with another, being willing to navigate the twists and turns even when it becomes difficult.
This vision Rennebohm paints is beautiful. It fills me with hope. Yet even as I typed it, I felt myself questioning how much this is possible. I have been there before, in a space where I wanted to practice being a companion. And where I felt like I dropped the ball. Because this way of being present with another human being on a journey is hard. It can drain you mentally, spiritually, and even physically. Even when we are healthy, being a companion is something that must be done purposefully and slowly over time. And it is also something that must be done in community.
Which brings us to Rennebohm’s concept of “circles of care.” The work of caring, of healing, of companioning should not be left to one person. Rather, each of us can have a role to play in someone’s journey. And as each of us lives into our role, we can become another connection in someone’s circle of care. For instance, as a pastor, I can have a role if I encounter someone living outside, who is looking for support on their journey. But let’s say they also need housing. I would try to find someone who know’s the housing situation in my area far better than me, and hopefully they could meet with them. And like that, another person is added to the circle of care.
This image, of companioning with others and creating circles of care, fills me with hope in it’s simplicity, but also with cynicism, as this way of living is so against our Western consumer culture. A culture that has even infiltrated the church, where many of us look for a place that can fulfill MY spiritual needs. Even in myself I can see how much this goes against my tendencies and desires to get things done and be “successful” in the eyes of the world. Yet at then end of the day, the hope is stronger.
As I picture my own neighborhood of Bayside, in North Everett, I can see how even a small group of people living in this way might change our community. I dream of a community that, rather than kicking people experiencing addiction and poverty out of our parks, comes together to better understand the reality of poverty and addiction, in order to make our neighborhood a safe place for all. I dream of a community that sees people living on the street, experiencing mental illness, and struggling with addiction, and sees them as people rather than problems to fix. People who are hurting, and a majority of whom do not choose to live like that. I know this is a big dream. But like the X-Files poster on my office wall says, I want to believe. I want to know that this simple but beautiful idea of coming alongside people who are hurting and creating networks of care in our community can happen. But it will mean working together, not just with people outside my church and faith tradition, but outside my cultural and socieo-economic and friendship groups, for the bettering of my neighborhood and community.
But I think it is a neighborhood that we all would want to live in.