Accompany. This word struck me particularly as I finished reading “In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez,” a book that makes connections between global health and liberation theology. Dr. Farmer and Fr. Gustavo both share the importance of accompanying the poor in order to address a root cause of health disparities and the biggest scandal of theology: poverty. When we accompany, we start from a bottom-up approach and acknowledgement that we are called to stand in solidarity with others because we are one. As Dr. Farmer reiterates again and again, we do not live in “First World” and “Third World” countries; we live in one world. An example of this I learned when visiting San Diego recently is that there are pollution concerns in San Diego travelling up the coast by air and water from Tijuana; wouldn’t investment into the public health infrastructure in Tijuana lessen the burdens not only of the Mexicans but also the Californians?
I am also struck by the world accompany for several other reasons. First, its root is “con pan” – with bread. When we break bread with others, we are standing – or eating – with one another in solidarity. When we can ensure that no one is excluded from our table, but that there is bread for all, we are really living as if everyone on earth is our kin. Next, this is a word used by immigration activists, as immigrants benefit from having people to accompany them to trials when they are facing deportation: immigrants are often treated more humanely when accompanied by a U.S. citizen who recognizes their human dignity and knows something of the danger that often awaits those who are forced back to their home countries. Also, I found out that there is a retreat within the Methodist/Protestant traditions that parallels the Day by Day Agape (DDA) retreat I went on as a teenager at Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries, that the Protestants call “A Walk with Emmaus.” The Emmaus Walk as I have come to experience on my DDA and other retreats, is also one of accompaniment. It’s accompanying a fellow human being on their walk with God – a shared experience that can be truly transformative for both parties.
Accompaniment in the search for global health, food justice, immigrant rights, spiritual discernment, or any other human journey has love for the other at its root in all cases. It’s the same root as the motivation of St. Francis of Assisi when he decided to embrace the leper on the side of the road, and the same motivation that St. Francis spoke about when he told a fellow friar “charity, not food” is what was important in the breaking of bread with a hungry friar. Charity, that is, in the context of the original meaning of the word it is derived from (caritas) – love for one’s neighbor. In this holistic understanding of the word charity, we come to accompany our brothers and sisters in a way that honors their dignity rather than sees them as recipients of handouts that does not allow them to have a role in their own liberation. This type of accompaniment has allowed Dr. Paul Farmer to build up the organization of Partners in Health to have 13,000 employees, two thirds of them being local community health workers, many former patients who many have never had a job in their lives before. It’s an accompaniment that sees people holistically, acknowledges the social determinants of health, creates jobs, and helps people lift themselves out of poverty.
It’s this type of accompaniment we can use in building one to one relationships when organizing for a goal, for those who seek to do something to manifest hope as an alternative to the utter hopelessness we can feel in challenging situations where we see so much suffering around us. Fr. Gustavo speaks a good deal about hope amidst suffering, as well – citing Jeremiah 32 and Job as influential Biblical texts to meditate upon.
Ultimately, it is especially up to those who have privilege to decide to accompany those who suffer at the hand of unjust policies and systems, recognizing that we can gain strength from the hope that lives in the wells of our own and others’ experiences. And of course, the person being accompanied must choose to be accompanied. When we befriend those we accompany, the journey becomes a shared human experience from which both people can benefit.