The Need for Community: Lent 2011
by Rachael Barnett
From 2002 to 2007, I worked as a counselor with a program at East Tennessee State University called Upward Bound. Upward Bound is a federally-funded college-prep program for high school students from lower-income families and first-generation college students.
I want to tell you about Mark. Mark was an amazing young man with great energy, a wonderful attitude and kind heart. He also faced tough challenges, including some undiagnosed learning disabilities. Mark's parents were both disabled and could not work. While they did collect some disability assistance, Mark faced the additional responsibility of providing income for his family with part-time jobs during high school. With younger siblings and keeping up with high school demands, Mark had a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
High school students who have to work for their families usually have the additional cost of needing a car to get to work. We would call it being "car poor"--a vicious cycle. Mark wanted to go to college. His passion was exciting. Our job was to help him in every way possible. Fortunately Mark qualified for financial aid, so the cost was not a problem. Mark had some special obstacles to overcome, which included making time for college classes and registering for required developmental coursework because of his lower test scores.
Honestly, I pushed Mark. I pushed for what I thought was his own good. That was why it was so painful when I received a phone call from his mother saying, "Why are you forcing my son to go to college when he will fail? I need him to be at home working this summer, not taking classes that will do him no good. His family needs him."
It was a metaphorical stomp on my heart and my pride. His mother had been so supportive of Upward Bound throughout his time in high school. I didn't understand. At first, I was ashamed; then I was angry. I was angry at his mother, but in hindsight, I was angry at the cycle of poverty that was keeping Mark from going to college. There were so many situations in working with these students when I questioned: "Are we doing the right thing here?"
Isaiah 58:6-9a starts with a question. "Is this not the fast that I choose?" It reminds me of those times when I've asked myself a question in doubt. Maybe during a prayer, maybe during a time of discernment. In Mark's story, was I doing the right thing? "God, is THIS right? I am doing the right thing, aren't I?" I have always found comfort in some healthy doubt. It's a bit reassuring that Isaiah may have also needed some convincing of this call to justice, as well. "Is THIS not the fast that I choose?"
Fortunately, we cannot live out this prophetic call in isolation. How am I to "let the oppressed go free" and "break every yoke" if I try to do it on my own? In Mark's case, I took it so personally. Had I failed Mark? Had I failed at my job? Fortunately, I had a great community of colleagues struggling with me. Mark struggled with me, too. Mark's friends in the program struggled alongside him, as well. In the end, he had to make his family a priority over college. But I believe that struggle was not in vain. Maybe it didn't lead to enrollment in college at that moment, but there was progress in the struggle, and Mark's life was enriched by his time in the program.
I need a community. Mark needed a community. A community of faithful believers and a community of encouraging challengers. I hope we can all agree that we are called into community to do what this Scripture asks: To lose, to undo, to break, to love, to share, to clothe, and to feed. Only together with God are these things possible.
Rachael Barnett is the Mission Support Liaison for The Advance & Development of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Apr 06, 2011