Friday, August 12, 2011

Paul Farmer on Accompaniment: Breaking Bread with the Poor as We Walk Along

Good weekend reading: Paul Farmer's recent essay in Foreign Affairs on assisting the poor over the long term (originally composed as a May 2011 commencement speech at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government), and Tom Fox's helpful summary of Farmer's essay in National Catholic Reporter.  Farmer's premise: effective, long-term assistance for those living on the social margins requires accompaniment, not charitable handouts.

Farmer notes the theological roots of the term "accompaniment" and his indebtedness to liberation theologians such as Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez in using it.  The term connotes journeying with and breaking break with--cum + panis.  Too many foreign aid programs and programs of charitable outreach are premised on fly-in, fly-out solutions that never involve the presuppositions of those to whom the outreach is offered.  Indeed, these programs often involve little intimate knowledge on the part of the caregiver of those to whom his/her helping hand is extended.

Accompaniment requires that the caregiver walk along with the one receiving care, that he learn from those to whom he extends his hand, that her life be changed by the encounter with those to whom she offers charity.  Accompaniment breaks the messianic paradigm on which much Christian charity is premised, with its assumption of the superiority of the charitable and the inferiority of the recipient of charity.  

It also requires remaining with those in need, and not merely parachuting in with care packages and then flying out again when one's mission is--according to one's own light--over and done with.  Breaking bread with others in any meaningful sense requires that we recognize the indissoluble bond that the act of sharing bread with others creates.

When Steve and I and several other recent graduates of Loyola University in New Orleans moved into a predominantly African-American, economically deprived neighborhood in the early 1970s, intending primarily to live there as a Christian community of prayer offering hands-on assistance to people in need, our neighbors quickly told us that they had seen one group after another like ours come and go.

Each group offered assistance.  Each proposed to listen to the needs of those in the local community and to do what it could to address those needs.

And then each group left long before effective bonds of friendship had been built or the needs of the local community addressed in any effective way.

As we ourselves did, when the opportunity to renovate a former monastery and to expand the prayer and teaching aspect of our lives and ministry came along . . . .

No comments: