“Being with” Our Neighbors


By L. Roger Owens

Samuel Wells and Marcia Owen have given me the language to make sense of [a] new perspective in their book Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence. It’s simple language—the language of “being with.”1 They note different “models of engagement” that can shape how we think of service. The first they call “working for.” The “working for” model involves an imbalance of power, skill, and initiative. One group of people—usually with greater wealth and access to resources—tells another group of people what their problem is and proceeds to solve it for them. Wells and Owen say this is the “conventional model of engagement across class and race boundaries.”2 This is the soup kitchen model, the Christmas toy giveaway model. This model maintains a clear “us” and “them.”

Wells and Owen also mention a “working with” model. In the “working with” model, others are invited in to imagine the solutions to their own problems and to work for them. Habitat for Humanity, for example, employs an element of “working with.” Those who get a new house contribute to building the house and have a mortgage to repay. It’s not one-sided work. I believe this model of engagement still supports an imbalance of power and resources, still an “us” and “them,” and the initiative usually focuses on the “us.” And yet this model promotes the possibility of working together.

But Wells and Owen offer another model, more difficult than either of the above and harder to understand: “being with.” As they put it, “Being with is not fundamentally about finding solutions, but about companionship amid struggle and distress. Sometimes the obsession with finding solutions can get in the way of forming profound relationships of mutual understanding, and sometimes those relationships are more significant than solutions.”3 The latter claim—that relationships are more significant than solutions—is hard for many in our American activist culture to swallow. How could relationships be more significant than solutions?

In Ephesians 2, Paul outlines what we might call the “trouble with the world.” And the trouble with the world is that people are cut off from one another: there are Jews and Gentiles. The most meaningful aspect of Christ’s work came in breaking down the dividing wall between these people and creating one new humanity. As Paul says, Jesus “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14; see also vv. 11-22).

We don’t think of the world’s problem as being the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. But the church believes its mission is to embody the new humanity. We affirm that endemic divisions in our society are directly at odds with God’s vision of a restored creation. We experience too many dividing walls. “Working for” and “working with” can leave dividing walls in place, barriers that, if crossed at all, are only crossed for a time. But Paul refers to the “church,” which embodies the mystery of a people who are reconciled to one another—who can feast together across lines of race, class, gender, and ideology. They learn to see and respond to Jesus’ invitation: “Find me not in isolation but in this new relationship; this is where I am. And when you can see me in each other and in these new relationships, then a divided world can see me in you.” That is significant.

Who knows? A solution to a problem may emerge along the way.

Sam Wells and Marcia Owen relate how an organization called the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, of which Marcia is the director, learned to move from “working for” to “being with.” The heart of the coalition’s work involves hosting prayer vigils at the site of every homicide in Durham and organizing care teams called Reconciliation and Reentry Care Teams. These care teams partner a person coming out of prison for a violent offense with a team of five or six people from a local faith community to help the former inmate reenter society. I served on the first care team the coalition started.

Men and women coming out of prison face enormous hurdles. They struggle to find work; few employers want to hire convicted felons. They strain to pay rent, get their driver’s licenses, reconnect with family—the list of obstacles is very long. They have to relearn how to function outside of prison walls. I remember meeting Michael, who had spent many years in prison though I never learned why. The members of his care team hoped to get him reestablished. In many ways, we found ourselves “working for” Michael. We thought our job was to help.

One woman in our group, Ann, began to feel like a mother to Michael. A retired teacher, she started tutoring him, teaching him to read. She relished the task of shopping for him, the challenge of finding clothes large enough to fit. She baked for him. She visited him. She loved him. So when Michael stole a four-wheeler to buy drugs and got sent to a state prison so far away we could not visit him, it devastated Ann. The team met to talk about what we had been through with Michael, and Ann wept. “We failed,” she cried. “We failed.” Over and over again: “We failed.” And at the time, I agreed.

But looking back, I wonder, Did we? If our job was to solve Michael’s many problems—keep him off drugs, out of trouble, and in a good job—yes, we failed. But we didn’t fail at our job of being with him—of learning from him, seeing Jesus in him, allowing our relationship with him to change us, becoming community with him. Maybe we didn’t know him long enough to become true community.

But we found a space for the kind of relationship almost impossible in our society, one that crossed lines of race, class, and history. Michael was someone I had been trained to avoid, even to fear. And his culture and family probably trained him to fear people like me. Now the care team members live in the world as people who fear “Michaels” less and perhaps Michael lives with less fear of people like us. Now we live as people with eyes open to the possibility of being with one another when we hadn’t been able to see that possibility before. I wouldn’t call that a failure.

Some organizations dedicated to serving the poor say, with a hint of superiority, “We don’t give a handout; we give a hand up.” This slogan states differently the meaning of the aphorism: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Giving a handout and a hand up have their place. Indeed, almsgiving has a cherished place in Christianity.

But neither is sufficient on its own, because neither makes room for the mystery of transformation the Spirit makes possible when we set aside our agenda and learn to be with one another. Whether I’m giving a handout or a hand up (as we thought we were giving Michael), I can’t receive the sacrament of Christ’s presence through the poor. And as long as I’m giving a handout and a hand up, how will they receive the sacrament of Christ’s presence through me?

Consider This

  • How far would you have to go to eat a meal with people of a different class, race, or culture than you? What obstacles stand in your way?
  • What does service look like in the church you attend? When has your service kept you at a distance from those you serve? When have real relationships emerged?
  • Think of a service ministry in your church, and then write about how the ministry would have to change to move from “working for” to “being with.” How could that ministry be done differently?
  • When have you failed at service? Does this story give you a new perspective on the meaning of success and failure?

Excerpted from What We Need Is Here: Practicing the Heart of Christian Spirituality by L. Roger Owens. Copyright © 2015 by the author. Used with permission of The Upper Room

1. Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 23–40.

2. Ibid., 26.

3. Ibid., 30.