Sr. Patricia Lanigan on the Art of Listening, by Melanie Lidman
The parishioners in the church wanted a marble altar. The church was squeezed in the dark, cramped slums of Lagos, Nigeria, a wooden barn that was barely finished with rough-hewn furniture. The priests wanted to build a social hall, so they could hold classes or training sessions for income-generating activities. But the parishioners were adamant: They wanted a marble altar.
Many aid workers and international development experts might shake their heads at the request. A marble altar? In a slum? When the parishioners could benefit so much from a social hall and the educational opportunities held there?
The term “social ministry” is an academic concept for a community development methodology, which holds that listening to the communities is the only way to carry out effective change. Religious and community leaders have been practicing various forms of social ministry in their pastoral work for centuries, but teaching this approach in an academic setting is a recent development. The approach holds that when a community is so adamant about something, like a marble altar, there’s a reason. There’s a reason even if they are not able to articulate why this particular need is so pressing, or even when it seems like they could be better served another way.
The whole thing about social ministry is trying to change social structures and systems. But people get scared, and also part of it is not knowing how to do it. That is one of the reasons, when I’m teaching foundations of social ministry, that I concentrate for part of the course on social activists around the world, what they’ve done and how they did it. We study people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., to learn how they did things.
We teach something called ‘the four stages of the pastoral cycle.’ It’s about getting involved in a community, listening to what they bring up as their particular issues, and working with them on social cultural analysis. We use faith reflection and theological reflection as tools, which usually provides the motivation for people to say, let’s stop saying the government should do something and do something ourselves, to take action.
It takes time. You have to get to know people; they have to get to know you. You have to do a lot of small group work, so the meetings don’t get taken over by one or two vocal people. Sometimes you also need to separate women and men and youth, because otherwise women culturally may not feel they can speak up in front of the men. They certainly feel they can’t disagree with a man.
How did this idea of listening to the community expressing their needs help you in the past?
People can’t always say what really is driving them, which is something I really learned in Nigeria. I was working in one of the slum parishes in Lagos. Their system in the parish is to do a major fundraising once a year, the Harvest Thanksgiving, and then have a parish meeting to decide what to do with the money. The priests were thinking that we’d use it to try to build a hall for social activities, like catechist and training courses. But the parishioners said, ‘We want a marble altar.’
The church we had was built like a barn, with just very basic wooden furniture. And they said, yes, here in the slums, we want a marble altar. The priests met with the community leaders and said go back and ask the members of your societies what they want — these are the two choices we have: a social hall or a marble altar. They all came back and said we want a marble altar. And the priest said OK, well, if that’s what you want, yes. We checked further into the idea of the marble altar and understood what they really wanted was a properly built and decorated sanctuary, with a beautiful altar.
What we found was that once the church sanctuary was decorated, people came in all the time for prayer and meditation. You know, they live in these small, dark huts. When they come to the church, there’s a bit of space. They said when they’re here, they can ‘cool their minds.’ They couldn’t explain this need beforehand, it’s only what we saw happening afterwards. So that really was a conversion experience for me. People may not articulate clearly why they want something, but if they’re very strong about it, they have a very good reason why they want it. You ignore that at your peril. Certainly, it really made a difference that people had that quiet space.
[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]