Doing Social Sector Work In The Age Of The "Isms"
Mother Teresa offered up some her finest work in the midst of the vain, volatile and vile social forces of her day. I'm not talking about her work in Calcutta. It was to the elitism, materialism and hedonism of affluent, western systems and structures that her witness was most energized. And at the same time encumbered.
A stark reminder that social sector work is never accomplished in a vacuum. It exists solely to be activated and actualized in the vortex of real life. Responding to forces that steer and shape its course of action. In addition to elitism, materialism and hedonism, the rise of populism, nationalism, pluralism, conservatism, liberalism and other “isms" are examples of present-day, real life forces. Forces for better, for worse or somewhere in-between. All swelling in defiance of or in concert with other “isms" sweeping the globe. Including globalism itself. Riding these waves and avoiding the riptides, social sector organizations are simultaneously energized and encumbered in the age of the "isms." For it is to this churning they are commissioned to serve.
There's a groundswell of another “ism" the social sector might have to reckon with. Interestingly, this one may rise from within. Vestiges of an earlier religious sectarianism simmering back up to the top of the sector. Surprisingly, the sacred sects have been there all along. Latent, right below the surface and embedded in the DNA of even the most secular of humanitarian ventures. This sectarianism of a spiritual kind has the potential force to both energize and encumber the sector.
From the inside out. Again. For history does repeat itself.
Take many of today's social sector institutions dispensing global goodwill. Such as those launched from western cultures with once predominate Catholic or Protestant leanings. These institutions actually began as responses to religious convictions. While their founders felt obliged to be benevolent---feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick and defend the oppressed---they often parted ways on why they did it. Thus the "sects" of religious sectarianism.
The beliefs of these sects were distinct. For some, performing good deeds in society was proof positive of one's own devotion and individual spirituality. Others were more altruistic in their practice of faith, striving to create an equitable world for all. For those troubled by the root causes of social ills, benevolent impulses often took a backseat to the theologies of conversion, confrontation and conquest. History bears witness that variations of faith-driven activism spawned both winsome diversity and woeful divisiveness. Leaving behind legacies of good works as well as conflicted, complicated pasts.
Over time, many of these movements evolved in a secular direction. The evidence of their sectarian origins all but receding to the background. Relegated down to the basement at headquarters, buried in some obscure archival system. Or acknowledged in a sentimental way, articulated through a founder’s memorial niche. Located discreetly off the reception lobby. Or noted nominally on the website, lodged somewhere deep under the "About" tab.
Should faith still inform the rank and file of a social sector entity, it seems that any lingering sectarian delineations and doctrinal lines have been blended and blurred beyond recognition. So much so that you really can't tell a Catholic social worker from a Baptist one. Or distinguish the team at the Lutheran-sponsored free clinic from their Methodist counterparts stationed across town. All are strikingly similar in orientation, organization and operations. All are sharing a commonality of purpose and a communal spirituality to advance the greater good.
This is a good thing, this golden age of social sector cooperation and coordination. By hanging tight together there is a strong possibility the federations will remain intact, riding out the ebbs and flows of the current “isms" from the outside. Activated. Actualized. Responding and doing remarkable work in this age.
But what about that "ism" from within? With a force to once again make delineations, differences and distinctions of faith a determining factor. For better, for worse or somewhere in-between. Should religious sectarianism reestablish its role in the foreground of the social sector---informed in part by the rising of the other "isms" in society or stirred by the swelling sentiments of donors, supporters and sponsors---it will be prudent to possess a working, historical knowledge of the matter. If ignored or dismissed, a social sector institution will do itself a disservice. Either caught blindsided by the implications of this revival or missing an opportunity to leverage its spiritual force and momentum.
That’s why everyone in the social sector---including the most secular and non-sectarian in the rank and file, even those who do not profess or practice faith---should at least read a primer on the subject. To educate yourself. Enlighten your thinking. Enliven your discourse on the matter.
Better yet, deputize someone on your social sector staff with the assignment. For example, if your organization traces its origins back to a Christian faith tradition, it will be important to become familiar with the dogmas and duties of faith-driven activism. Don't forget to examine the ancient and not-so-ancient creeds and credos behind them. Perhaps acquaint yourself with the general historical outlines of the social gospel, liberation theology, evangelical zeal and fundamentalist rigor. Learn how each requires differing degrees of sanctified, selfless service at the fringes and on the front lines and fault lines of human need.
And what of the other faiths that coexist in a pluralistic society? Make sure your deputy researches that as well. It behooves you to develop an understanding of the broader variety of religious beliefs, and the particular vernaculars of their charity and benevolence.
In reporting back to you, the deputy will probably summarize that there are sacred visions aplenty about almost anything and everything that concerns humanitarian work. That some of these visions are similar in intent, while others insist on divergent views. That these matters may indeed directly motivate your donors, supporters and sponsors. And your Board members, volunteers and other constituents. And, indirectly, the politicians, policy makers and the general public. Which means that all of this can potentially impact the form, function and funding of your particular organization. For better, for worse or somewhere in-between. Whether your organization engages in religious affiliations or is secular to the core.
You may be able to take a social sector entity out of the faith. But you can't take the faith out of the social sector. And should there be a resurgent wave of religious sectarianism, insist that the best of spiritually informed social sector history be repeated. With the less seemly episodes relegated as cautionary tales. So that your necessary and noble work is activated and actualized, and the dispensing of goodwill, good works and good deeds continues in the age of the "isms."
"Yes, you must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world that makes gods out of power, riches and pleasure make you forget that you have been created for greater things." - Mother Teresa
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