Before directing Servant Year, I was a social worker in South Philadelphia. First as a case manager and after school program leader for teenagers, then as a truancy case manager, I was told again and again an old social work mantra, “Lean into the discomfort.”
I remember talking with co-workers about homes with odd smells, teenagers using words completely unfamiliar to me (everything in Philly is a "jawn"), and any number of other experiences that made me squirm. Patiently and lovingly they would listen to my stories and then, usually, say, “Lean into the discomfort.” This is not to say that I ignored dangerous situations or did not report significant safety threats to local authorities, but I began to meet people where they were- even if it wasn’t where I was most comfortable.
At first my tendency was to walk into someone else’s home and, rather chipperly, say, “I’m here to help you! I’m ready to change your life!” Much like Job, the families I worked with most often did not need to hear my grandiose thoughts on socioeconomic theories or quick fix bandaids. They needed me to sit with them in their realities. Just sit with me, Ms. Lindsay. Lean into the discomfort.
Since the Servant Year members started last month, many have come to me over dinner, after Friday Formation, or during our first retreat to say, “I am uncomfortable.” Very rarely is this said so directly, but the sentiment is real and meaningful. More frequently it sounds like, “I’m the only white person on the bus.” “Someone left their dirty dishes in the sink.” “Should I give people money or food if they ask me on the street?” “I noticed there’s no t.v. in the house…is one coming soon?”
What we ask our members, and members of other volunteer programs, to do is difficult and outside of their norms. Sharing a house with 4, 5, or even 7 other non-family members or self-selected roommates is uncomfortable- especially when there’s one shower. Working at our ministry placements can be uncomfortable, especially when they are building the relationships that we ask of them.
During one of the quarterly supervisions I have with our members and their agency supervisors, I ask what has been the most challenging moment of their first month’s service. Without hesitation, one of our members said, “Two weeks ago they found a man dead outside and I knew him. He visited us frequently and I thought he was okay. I thought he was doing better.” In only a month, she had begun to build a relationship with this man. Leaning into the discomfort allowed her to overcome all the barriers society had put between her and her neighbor, whom she now grieved.
Man, woman. Sheltered, homeless. Sober, addicted. Dirty, clean.
The most challenging part of my work, and what I think our program members wrestle with most day to day, is still leaning into the discomfort. And yet, our members are beginning to find, as I did in South Philly, that leaning into the discomfort can often be profoundly joyful moments to learn more about God, their community, and themselves.
As a Church, we often lose sight of the radical uncomfortable feeling involved in Kingdom work. And I think part of why it’s so hard for me to fully live into what the Gospel demands is because it’s awkward. Like, hair on the back of your neck standing up weird.
Thankfully, the often bewildered and uncomfortable disciples have gone before us to confirm that yes, Jesus really just said that. Yes, Jesus really just did that...and it's not what you would have expected. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, just in case there’s any confusion, this also means you have to love your neighbor as yourself. Every day. Even when other people aren’t looking. Even on your day off. Even people who are rude or take forever ordering a pretentious drink at Starbucks. Even when they’re yelling things you don’t understand on street corners.
Especially when they’re yelling things you don’t understand on street corners.
Two of our communities are at Anglo-Catholic parishes where sacraments and liturgy take center stage, but more than that they lean into the discomfort. Sacraments and liturgy have got to exist for young adults, especially those I work with, in a place that is okay existing in the already, and not yet. Their church has to invite everyone through its front doors, no matter what they wear, who they love, or where they sleep. The church has to be messy and sometimes make people uncomfortable.
Of course this is easier said than done, but I have been encouraged by the passion for a more beloved community in our members’ hearts- especially as they lean into the discomfort.
Lindsay Barrett-Adler is the Associate for Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director for the Servant Year program. You can learn more about Servant Year at www.servantyearphila.org.