First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Companioning as Social Change

October 14, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
Terry Hershey discovered what it means to have sanctuary. He found sanctuary on a porch swing with his grandmother. Terry Hershey is a speaker and landscape designer, and also author of the book Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life. His grandmother had a porch swing in her backyard in northern Florida. She liked to sit on the swing and sing church hymns, like “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”

When as a young adult, Terry visited her, she would invite him to join her on that swing. He remembers how she would lovingly pat his leg and refer to him as “darlin'.” He also remembers her sitting there after chemotherapy, wearing a white scarf over her head. He says,

As long as my grandmother lived—and in spite of her pain—there was always a place for me on the swing. If I were asked to explain grace, I would paint the picture of my grandmother's swing. There, I never had to deliberate or explain or worry, regardless of the weight I carried. The porch swing—my grandmother's presence—bestowed grace without conditions.

Terry is alive today, he says, because of that swing, because of that sanctuary. (review of and excerpt from Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, Terry Hershey, www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/27882)

We all need that kind of place and that kind of person. Pets too. They are especially skilled at bestowing grace. In times of crisis, struggle, and exhaustion, everyone needs a space of renewal and grace. We need a loving presence of accompaniment and companioning.

The term “companioning” has its origins in pastoral care. The related term accompaniment is also sometimes used to convey a similar idea. Accompaniment has often been used in cases where one person literally accompanies another person. But today I am using these terms interchangeably. Companioning is a term that comes from the field of pastoral care, specifically from work with those who are grieving. It lends itself to the social change commitments of religious communities like ours because it evokes the spiritual dimension and emphasizes mutuality. In grief work, companioning makes space for healing and renewal without judgment or pressure. This space makes it possible to discover and give voice to one’s own truths rather than being told what to think or do or be. The point isn’t for one person to help another person get over their pain, diagnosis them, or try to fix their problems. Instead, companioning honors the soul level work of bearing witness to another’s pain.

At a time of loss, having someone who will offer their presence and journey beside us is one of the best gifts possible. It reaffirms us of our worth and dignity and reminds us that we are connected. To companion someone during such a time is to trust them to be the best judge of what they most need and of what will heal their spirit.

There is a growing understanding in religious circles that these pastoral companioning skills have applicability to the work of allies in effecting social change. Those who are most impacted are recognized as being best suited to identify the best methods of moving forward. Allies are companions and partners not fixers and experts. There are 11 principles of companioning with the bereaved. They are outlined in Alan Wolfelt’s Handbook for Companioning the Bereaved. The principles have been adapted for companioning for social change. They are:

  1. Companioning is being present to the oppressed person’s pain without trying to take away the pain.
  2. Companioning is going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being without thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
  3. Companioning is honoring the spirit as well as the intellect.
  4. Companioning is listening with the heart before analyzing with the head.
  5. Companioning is bearing witness to the oppressed person’s struggle without judgment while trusting a solution to emerge from the act of witnessing.
  6. Companioning is walking alongside; it is not about leading with expertise and solutions.
  7. Companioning is discovering the gifts of sacred silence without filling up every moment with words.
  8. Companioning is about being still and not about frantic movement.
  9. Companioning is respecting the creative movement of disorder and confusion.
  10. Companioning is learning from others before teaching them.
  11. Companioning is cultivating curiosity as well as expertise. (adapted from: Wolfelt, Alan. Handbook for Companioning the Bereaved, Eleven Essential Principles, Companion Press, 2009)

As Janice Marie Johnson said in this morning’s reading, companioning is “breaking bread with siblings” rather than “providing services to the disenfranchised.” (“Theology of Accompaniment,” from Bless the Imperfect, ed. By Kathleen Montgomery.) Another way to think about it is that rather than using the superhero approach, allies can cultivate partnerships as a spiritual practice. That means centering the person who is experiencing loss, pain, or injustice. Rather than taking charge, the ally learns to be a presence.

Several panelists in a recent program on Accompaniment offered by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee describe their own experiences and thoughts about accompaniment as a spiritual practice. Lucy says,

we're taught in this white supremacist culture that we have to . . . do [something. But] just the simplicity of being with someone else truly, and not trying to take over and fill the space with noise, is really powerful.

She is describing what it means to be fully present—to show up, pay attention, listen deeply, get to know people, and be an empathic presence.

Jennifer, another panelist, says, “We are living within a larger system whose goals are to make us feel separate and to make us feel like we don't have the power to change anything.” She says that the accompaniment model

place[s] our relationships with each other above everything . . . at the root of [accompaniment] is relationship. We accompany each other as if we were friends, cousins, neighbors, because we are all connected. So holding that sense of connectedness and relationship will lead us through.

Kiersten, yet another panelist who was part of the Accompaniment  program, recognizes her own complex feelings as an ally. As an ally in immigration justice work, she discovered that she had much to learn. She doesn’t speak other languages and wasn’t a person in a position of power. She says,

I was constantly unprepared. As someone who does not speak other languages who are useful in the situation, as someone who does not have an incredible amount of power to change these massive systems by myself, I was constantly feeling like how can I contribute? How can I be a useful part of this?
   And every time I'm surprised that the presence is so powerful. That simply being there with people, being in the community, showing up as someone who cares about other people and who cares about what happens in the system which is so dehumanizing, that that can be a start. It's not all that you need to do. But it's a way to start.
   I think sometimes those of us who have citizenship privileges or white privileges or education privileges—we think we have to be able to fix it before we can be a part of it. I think that getting comfortable with feeling unprepared, just showing up, even though I know it is going to be super uncomfortable, were big learnings for me.

Companioning in the ways described by these panelists feels like pastoral care rather than problem-solving. While deeply rewarding and life-giving, companioning is also humbling, heart-breaking, and scary. (“Changing Systems, Changing Ourselves,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, https://www.afsc.org/CSCO-mainpage?ms=UUA)

For our religious community, practicing presence has the potential to humanize our justice work. As Kiersten said, “It’s not all that you need to do. But it’s a way to start.” Companioning has the potential to be transformative for everyone involved, helping us discover new ways of changing destructive systems and new ways of changing ourselves. Placing those who are most impacted at the center of making decisions holds a powerful potential for moving forward together in ways that might never have been discovered otherwise. It is a way of practicing our Unitarian Universalist values of human worth and connection.

Companioning creates sacred space. It creates sanctuary. “It’s like being joined at the hip.” It is “breaking bread with siblings.” (“Theology of Accompaniment”) It is sitting on a porch swing with someone we love and who loves us. Those who make partnership a spiritual practice, learn to create such spaces. They learn to make way for healing for those who are most injured.

May we learn to practice the gifts of companioning—in our families, workplaces, here at church, and as allies in the community. May we be present to pain, go to the wilderness of the soul, honor the spirit, listen with the heart, bear witness, walk alongside, discover sacred silence, be still, respect confusion, learn from others, and cultivate curiosity.

May it be so. Amen.