“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.”
So read the opening lines of Bishop Ken Untener’s famous prayer, “A Step along the Way.” When I first read these words as part of my training to be a new Compañero, I was surprised to find in them a common thread that I’ve seen in the values of various social justice institutions. Through Summer Links – the social justice cohort program at my university that has brought me to Taller de José – I have had the privilege to hear from various leaders in the field of social change in the city of Chicago. Without exception, these remarkable people have been eager to explain to our cohort that social change, in the broadest sense, is not the work of one person or one lifetime.
It is a principle that is at once daunting and beautiful, but before this summer I could only have understood it as an idea in the abstract. In my work here at Taller de José, I have been lucky to observe and practice it in action. The essence of accompaniment as I understand it is fundamentally tied to this view of incremental change. By walking alongside our clients in whatever work they need to do to access resources and achieve their goals, Compañera(o)s strive to build the confidence and capacity of the people we serve. By empowering our clients as Bishop Untener aptly puts it, we “provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.”
Nowhere have I seen this principle more clearly illustrated than in my work with Andrea. Sr. Betty is currently walking with Andrea in her journey to win guardianship of her adult son and I have been lucky enough to join this team. To someone with no experience, this may seem like a straightforward case; unlike many of the legal issues we work with, no one is fighting against Andrea. But a myriad of barriers – among them, that Andrea does not speak English, cannot pay for a lawyer to help her navigate the complexities of the civil system, and has to spend most of her time caring for her child – have transformed what should be a simple process into an arduous and emotionally trying process.
To make the case more manageable, Sr. Betty and I have helped her break it up into smaller, more manageable steps. Due to a change of address, her son went months without receiving his disability insurance checks. Recently, we accompanied Andrea to the Social Security Office and supported her while she advocated for her son; ultimately, she was able resolve the issue, and her son was sent the backlogged financial support the next week. Sr. Betty also accompanied Andrea to a hearing with the judge, and stood beside her to make sure that she understood that she had a supportive ally. In court, she was told that her ID had expired and that she needed valid identification for the case to proceed. Later the same week, I went with Andrea and her son to the institution where could renew her ID. In each of these instances, Andrea, Sr. Betty, and I have been able to work as a team to chip away at what at first appeared to me an almost impossibly difficult case.
Despite these actions, progress is slow going and there are still many more hurdles we are facing. In this way, too, the case is a microcosm of the principle of change being an effort that takes more patience than most of us can fathom. It can be difficult to see the value in a process that does not quickly yield results, but we must learn to do just this; our work with Andrea may, in the words of Bishop Untener, “be incomplete, but it is a beginning.” Our work is not to solve any and every problem we encounter – indeed, this would, in my view, overestimate our own power and misunderstand our role as supporters, and not directors, in the lives of our clients. Rather, it is to dedicate our whole selves to taking the small steps that we can to inch closer towards our goals. I don’t mean to claim great insight or wisdom; I merely mean to say that in the work of my colleagues and the enduring spirit of my clients, I think I have begun to understand what it is to strive to be “prophets of a future not our own.”