Accompaniment and Interfaith Leadership
May 12, 2020
As the world shifts within social distancing and self-isolation policies, I’ve been thinking about the importance of accompaniment. Growing up, my parents wove the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching into my early religious education. These seven themes derive from many sources in the Roman Catholic tradition to establish how we are to move in and engage with the world. My parents did not always provide explicit instruction on these themes, but they encouraged me to volunteer at soup kitchens, wrap presents during Christmas gift drives, and shovel driveways of elderly neighbors. As I got more involved in interfaith work in college, Catholic Social Teaching took on new meaning with two themes becoming more important and salient: the solidarity and dignity of each person.
Solidarity and dignity of the human person became guideposts for my first job in higher education where I served as a hall minister for a first-year men’s hall. All manner of students lived in the hall with all manner of concerns, pains, and struggles. Solidarity reminded me if one is suffering, all are suffering. Should a student come to me in pain, I felt obliged to walk with them and assist them in finding a solution for their pain. Dignity reminded me of the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and how he cared for a stranger and perhaps even an enemy. When a student from any worldview background came to me, I sought common ground and posed questions to better understand from where they came.
Accompaniment took on renewed focus when Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium in 2013. Within this document, Pope Francis called all members of the Roman Catholic Church to physical and spiritual accompaniment. While “no one can fully know from without” what someone’s challenges may be, we can accompany individuals “without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability” (Chapter 3, Section 172).
Prior to IFYC, I served as a campus minister for seven years at two Jesuit higher education institutions where my engagement with students made accompaniment very direct. I would meet with students of various worldview to discuss their plans for college and beyond. To many students, I was a sounding board to test arguments before they spoke with their parents, while to others, I was emotional support after facing discrimination. Regardless of why they came, my role was the same: to walk with them through their pain and help them find a path forward. My goal was to empower them to take action and to be the leader of their own journey, and ultimately, to not need me.
I recently spoke with Eric Detar, Chaplain and Director of the Center for Spiritual Life at Keuka College, about how accompaniment requires attention and commitment and ultimately empowers both individuals. We reflected on how many times someone we were accompanying would return the “favor” of accompaniment.
For Eric, the proof of success came in a text from a student he had accompanied through the death of her father. Out of the blue, he got a text asking, “Did you drink enough water today?” In his role, he had worked with faculty to make accommodations for this student and met regularly with her while she processed the loss of her father. One way they had connected had been his struggles to drink enough water throughout the day. For her to remember and reach out, took Eric by surprise.
For me, it took the form of a former student writing me a note to share how much our conversations meant to him five years after he graduated. Too often, those of us who practice accompaniment forget that relationships go both ways and that solidarity and dignity is needed by all of us.