Friday, October 9, 2009

The Book of Ruth, Counter-Narratives & Asset Mapping

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

We had a great Bible Study this morning on the remainder of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 in Ruth. We also had a great conversation with John “Jody” Kretzmann (a professor and co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University and “guru” of asset mapping) about his experience with gathering stories from around the country to illustrate the story of an asset-based approach to communities. In his work, he said the basic concept is approaching communities that have often been seen as “needy” with a different question. Rather than going to them to “prove” their great need – and therefore their worthiness for the charity being offered – they approach communities with the question of their assets and how they could be a worthwhile “investment” for those who have resources. The basic work and approach is outlined in their first book, Building Communities from the Inside Out.

Kretzmann reflected that only one particular case study has focused specifically on an immigrant community. In the book Building the Mercado Central, they looked at the case study of a faith-based group (at the time Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Isaiah interfaith group) that worked with a developing immigrant community to organize. The end result was the now quite successful Mercado and District Del Sol on St. Paul’s south side. They interviewed about 50 people in the community, slowly identifying those in the community that others would see as the ones who had gifts and opportunities, and asking them to think of the assets, skills, etc., that they had from their communities of origin. “The shift,” Kretzmann said, “was that the folks from Isaiah saw members of the immigrant community as people who had a past beyond their time of arrival in St. Paul.”

What was striking to me about his comment was the fact that I am trying to reflect on counter-narratives. Immigrant communities are defined by a “meta narrative” imposed on them that sees them as problematic, without resources and needy. Instead, the interviews revealed people who were quite creative in their home communities in finding ways to survive. Through the interviews, the repeated resource/asset that kept being identified was not so much what people had in the form of recognizable/certifiable skills, but rather the things they had done on the side. Many of them had experience – and had enjoyed – producing meals on the side or art and crafts, etc. Out of those who were being approached, a core group formed that worked with the external group (the Isaiah project folks) to form a cooperative. Much work had to follow on how they would organize a business: approaching city officials to obtain property and permits, providing some basic training to those who would become part of the effort, etc. In the long term, the Mercado has become an example, inspiring to those on the “inside of the community” (¡sí se puede!) and accessible as a valuable investment opportunity for those on the outside with resources. The Suomali market that is now a few blocks down the street from the Mercado and another international market elsewhere in the city drew at least in part from the success of the Mercado, according to Kretzmann.

How do the Biblical stories offer a counter-narrative in the way that narrative therapy looks for counter-narratives in people’s lives, experiences and instances that reveal their inner strength and ability to overcome the challenges that they are facing? This morning’s Bible Study on Ruth confirmed once again the power of these stories. The engagement from people was rich and powerful. I began by playing “Hamman’s Song” from the Veggie Tales take on the Esther story. The refrain for the song is “the law must be adjusted, for those who can’t be trusted.” We identified the common stereotypes of immigrants and argued that the book of Ruth is written to answer similar stereotypes present in the culture. Ruth proves herself to be loyal while immigrants are viewed – then and now – as those who can’t be trusted. Her loyalty is praised throughout the book, as well as powerfully articulated in a marriage-like experience between her and Naomi, where she commits herself “‘til death do us part” to her mother-in-law. Ruth also shows her knowledge of the law and customs of the land she eventually adopts as her own, by being mindful of asking for permission from Naomi when she goes out, by suggesting that she should take advantage of the laws that allow the poor to glean in the fields and, later on, by guiding Boaz to fulfill his responsibility as next of kin. Finally, when Boaz asks the servant in charge of the reapers about who Ruth is, he praises her as hardworking, even though that has not been solicited: “She has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

A number of people expressed great appreciation for this approach to a text that many of them have held dear, but have never heard in this way. Mrs. Johnson, the matriarch of a family that is here this week celebrating their family reunion, expressed surprise at the fact that even though the Women of the ELCA just engaged in a very thoughtful and insightful study on the book of Ruth, the fact that she – and Naomi – are immigrants was not at all reflected in the study. “That study opened my eyes to much that was new to me in this text, but our conversation here has brought to light a perspective that I think is very important to understanding the text,” she said. In that phrase she really articulated my hope for my sabbatical – to provide an “additional lens” to the way that we read these stories. 

When we got to the part in the story when Ruth returns “empty” to her hometown, I shared how the study group in Yakima had compared her deeply painful words to the experience of those who are deported. There was such a powerful feeling in the room – experienced in a deep silence – to imagine “Mrs. Echeveria” sharing the story of being deported back to her small town in Guatemala. Entering town on the bus, the whole community was truly “stirred” by her arrival. As she walked off the bus alone – as she had been deported without her family – feeling that she had failed, Naomi’s words that “the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me,” echoed deeply.

Later I ran into one of the study participants, who expressed deep appreciation for the way that this woman’s story of grief connected with her own. “I have not experienced anything quite like you describe that she did, but it connected deeply with my own loss at leaving home and the transition of my kids.” Also, as we were finishing the Bible Study, when we had already been doing about 15 minutes of overtime with a small group who stayed back to continue the conversation beyond the allotted time, one of the participants said, “These women had to become assertive. I just lost my husband earlier this year. The man who was supposed to provide for me was absent, and I have had to become so much more assertive to be able to do the things that I relied on him to do for me.” It was clear in her comments and the depth from where they were coming, that Ruth’s narrative had been opened up in a new way for her that affirmed her assertive actions – when the subtext was that she had paid some price for having to make those changes in her life.

I am deeply appreciative of the community’s energy and engagement here. Duplicating this kind of educational experience and openness is really hard to do “down lake.” Part of my ambivalence is that statement itself. What is so specific about our conversation here? How much of it has to do with my own skill to lead a Bible Study? Can this be “bottled” as I have asked before? Can it be duplicated? Part of me wants to believe that this is just what’s there, and all that people need to do is give themselves permission to read the text for what it says! Kretmann said that their approach has been to identify communities in a few places around the country who are “affinitive” (groups that have connections to each other through existing networks, like faith communities, or shared interests, like medical professionals). Their model is to form “communities that are co-producers of outcomes with professionals.” As I understand his suggestion, when presented with the request for resources or told that they need “me” there, I should be prepared to invite a community to identify a group of people who are willing to find the three most compelling grassroots accomplishments in a place, to name their assets and then begin their work from there.

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