We were sitting in a day-long meeting with the pastor and CARE for AIDS committee of one of our partner churches. Part of our partnership agreement with churches asks them to create an oversight committee to help shape the program, engage with our clients, and create a sense of ownership of the program on behalf of the whole church.
One of the goals of our meeting was to discuss how to further engage the committee and to co-create with them ideas of how to increase a sense of partnership and ownership of the program within the church. Toward the end of the meeting, Linet, who was facilitating, asked a question that made me pause from taking notes and look up in surprise. She asked the committee, “What are some ways we can better appreciate you?”
I wondered why she was asking this... I felt like it was a perfect set-up for the pastor and the committee to ask us for money or for the committee members to ask us to pay them a sitting fee or to present to us their plans for a bigger building -- or for some other project that had nothing to do with our mission. I actually thought, “What is the point of asking this when we know exactly what they are going to say?”
I girded myself with cynicism and prepared to dismiss their ideas with inner eye rolls. I crossed my arms to make it obvious that I was NOT taking notes about what they were going to say.
What followed humbled me greatly.
After some silence, the pastor cleared his throat. He said, hesitantly, “I’m not sure how to say what I want to say, because I realize it is a big request.”
Just say it, because I already know what you’re going to ask, I thought.
“Go ahead, we want to hear what you’re thinking”, said Linet.
The pastor stood up, and quietly said, “The people in the program -- you call them clients, but we like to call them members -- become a part of our family. We have had a few cases in the past where members have died -- maybe two or three. We have taken the responsibility as their family and their church to pay for their funerals. My request would be, if we lose someone in the future, that you will help us with part of the funeral costs.”
He sat down. The cynicism in me was replaced by admiration and compassion for him and shame for my assumptions. I began taking notes.
Next to speak was Mama Naressa, the oldest member of the committee. As she stood up to speak, my cynicism returned slightly in preparation for what she might ask. She said only, “As a committee, we are in constant prayer for our members, and we have regular prayer meetings for them. We request that you pray with us, and maybe one time you can come to one of our prayer meetings.” She sat down.
My shame increased, as did my respect and admiration for this group of people.
The other two committee members had no requests; they only expressed gratitude for what our partnership has done for their church and to the community they serve.
I was reminded during this meeting that one of the greatest assets of our program is our partner churches. I was reminded again that the way we have set up our church partnerships sits us at the table equally, and for me to think of them as being in a position of receiving our help or our charity is wrong. Yes, they couldn’t have the level of impact they are having without us, but we also couldn’t have the same level of impact without them. It’s a true partnership.
I was so embarrassed by how I reacted in that meeting. I found myself trying to justify it, thinking it was based on experience. After honestly reflecting about it, though, I think it comes down to assumptions I was making based on my perception of our relationship.
It’s natural when someone is perceived as needing our help to expect less of them. It’s easy to see them as helpless or desperate recipients of our gracious generosity. When this is happening, we risk having our attitude toward them come from a place a place of begrudging superiority. So, how do we change our perception of someone? I believe it looks like what happened during that meeting -- it starts with sitting as equals at the table, and asking questions -- even if we think we might already know the answers.