The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Outreach Really Means Reaching Out

Non-profit agencies often try to "look like" the people they are serving. If they serve women, they want to hire women. If they serve African-Americans, they want to hire African-Americans. Organizations that serve the elderly want elderly people on staff, and youth groups want someone "youthful" in charge. I have seen this play out time and again in the different agencies I've been involved with.

They are often more-than-willing to accept a lack of qualifications in their employees in order to meet this goal. This is not an expression of affirmative action. It is actually the belief that someone can better serve if they "look like" the people they are serving.

Commonality has a place. If I were on an expedition to a third world country, I would want a local guide with me. That is certainly part of the package. The problem is that as an overall guiding strategy, it is misguided at best, and at worst showcases a most dismal view of humanity.

This is more than just a lack of courage and vision among these agencies (although it is both of those things). It is nothing short of a profound lack of faith in human beings and a complete misunderstanding of what being in relationship means. At its worst, it resigns us to the belief that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts. There is no magic in this equation. It says we are just organisms in a behavioral universe--the better the match-up on a number of key compatibility areas, the better the outcome. So they say.

Mother Theresa was a white, celibate, Roman Catholic nun from Albania. She set up shop in a section of India that couldn't have "looked" any more different from her. Yet, her work was so successful it virtually defines outreach work today--or at least, it points toward the ideal.

All relationships involve the "other"

All relationships are a challenge. Mother Theresa would have known that she couldn't get lazy. There were huge cultural gaps of every kind. Sensitivity, attentiveness, focus and a willingness to work hard at those relationship were no doubt integral to her mission. If you "look like" the people you're in relationship with too much, you could risk getting lazy.

Her faith and love for all human beings was a guiding principle that she brought to any group of people, big, small, white, black, you name it. Perhaps she did not even concern herself with the surface traits at all, since she was so focused on our deeper commonality--our membership in God's family and our universal needs for love and food. But I think there's more to it. Its not just replacing once list of common traits with another, even if they are deeper things in common. There is a mystical belief that while we are channeled by the physical reality of this world, we can also transcend it to perhaps reach a point of ultimate commonality.

Any time two people meet, there is an experience of "other". No two people have the same background, education or worldview. Each time two people get into relationship--any relationship--it involves a reaching out toward mystery and an experience of tension. Nothing works effortlessly, at least, not in the long run. It could be argued this is critical to our growth. We need communication and a lot of effort to continually reach across those divides and find ourselves ever so closer, day by day. True outreach is thus a component of every relationship.

This isn't to say that cultural gaps aren't significant. Some relationships may accidentally work if you find yourself among the 'boys from your hometown'. On the other extreme, I've also experienced the unexplainable chasm of culture shock. However, a person who understands the difficulty of relationships should be able to reach across no matter how different the other may be. The quality of all relationships will depend on the ability of people to continually come closer and closer. I've seen married couples who couldn't have had a more similar background yet be more further apart.

In our western society, many people don't see relationships as an opportunity for growth. They are simply business arrangements, where you look for someone who matches your list of criteria. The special magic that many hope for is something they actually work against. They look for the end product from a list of attributes and are surprised when there is nothing lasting built from such a passive approach. They want something easy.

Sometimes the similarities are not what they seem, either. I have found some of the deepest and most immediate kinship with people who couldn't have looked anymore different: A shepherd in Spain. An Ivy League MBA student from China. My closest spiritual companions are often not the ones who grew up in the pews next to me. I can get more "amens" preaching to a group of inner-city African-American folks than in your average Catholic church. You could argue that each of these people have a small town heart or blue collar sensibilities, like I grew up with. But it wasn't about the costume, nor was it about race, age, gender or nationality.

Perhaps the above are bad examples, because they are "easy" relationships where the commonality was there, it just happened to be deeper than surface traits. And that may be. But if you consider these examples, you start to see that what brings people together is not so much what lies on the surface. The potential for greatness is in any relationship. And I would argue that there are deeper, more mystical possibilities for relationships that are sure tempered and facilitated through our 3-D world, but which also transcend it. This is a far cry from a mechanistic view of life. It points to a commonality, sure, but one that transcends any of the limitations of this world.

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