November 2021: Self Care, Community Care, and Collective Healing

Today is our last week in this short series titled “What Helps, What Hurts.”

Two weeks ago, S kicked us off, and she talked about systems of mutuality. And last week, K reminded us that God’s capacity is in every person. And mostly, I feel like they’ve said everything that needs to be said. To be plugged into the great work of the Spirit and to recognize and reply to the divinity of one another – that’s the main message, isn’t it?

Most of the time, most of us are in the position to be helpers. But that is not a permanent position. Nor is it a seat of unique honor. Sometimes, we are in the position to need help. We are helpers and we need help. We engage in missions and we receive good news. We are supporters and we need support. In ebbs and flows, cyclically and dependably.

Like S and K have both said, this is not a series with answers or prescriptions. As we near the holidays – especially Thanksgiving and Christmas – we’re also finding HopeGateWay in a position to consider how it wants to be in partnership with organizations, communities, and peoples to do God’s work.

Now that we’re a free-standing congregation with no predetermined relationships or missional efforts we’re paying into, we are drawn into an invitation to define what kinds of partnerships we want to be a part of.

We hope that these three weeks will be like drops of dye in the water, prompting curiosity when we have these discussions in earnest.

Today, let’s hear an excerpt from a letter from Paul to the church in Rome. In Romans 12:6-13 (CEB), he says this:

We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is kind of like a condensed, repeated version of what he’s said before. It’s not particularly theological; it’s more like a litany of how we should give and live.

The Tarnished Image of Self-Care

So, I want to take a wide left turn in the discussion…

By now, you’ve probably heard about self-care: the notion that you have to care for yourself as an act of healing. And the concept conjures images ranging from scheduling doctor’s appointments, eating a nourishing meal, or taking a nap… to online lists of things you ought to buy yourself in order to finally feel at peace: usually candles, bath accessories, or something like that.

There’s a lot I like about the bloom of this self-care phenomenon. But if I’m being honest, I distrust it too – or at least the most visible, consumption-based face of it that shows up on lists of must-buys and Instagram ads.

Because, taken to the very consumer-focused conclusion where it’s at right now, self-care can become about isolation, independence, and – I think – an incomplete healing. It can become about how, if we surround ourselves with the right recipe of things, we can survive things like loneliness or burnout. 

But sometimes your conditions or obstacles can’t be solved in isolation or with independence. Sometimes our conditions are communal or systemic, and we can’t self-care ourselves back to wellness.

When the problem is poverty or hunger or violence or barriers to access, people can’t self-care themselves back to wellness. And when the problem is oppression or exclusion, people can’t self-care themselves into healing to begin with. Or, at best, what we experience is an incomplete healing. In those cases, “healthy” is not a state that can be returned to. At least not until the oppression or exclusion is gone.

The Radical Origins of Self-Care

So, because the term “self-care” has really worked its way under my skin, I wanted to know its origins. And what I learned both surprised and challenged me. I think it has much to say for HopeGateWay today as we consider how we want to show up in systems of mutuality – as Sara called it – in authentic and meaningful partnership with our communities and beyond.

“Self-care” has more radical origins than the iteration we’re experiencing en masse today.

According to URGE (Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity), the term self-care was coined by the medical community in the 1950s to describe actions like personal grooming and exercise that formerly institutionalized patients could take to practice autonomy and foster a sense of worth.

But the term was then popularized by the Black Panthers as a means of describing how they could care for each other and how to prevent burnout from activism. The Black Panthers fought against racial injustice as well as other social ills, including ableism. 

According to the documentary Crip Camp, detailing a camp for young adults with disabilities and the journey to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act… the Black Panthers’ ethos of self care also influenced how other marginalized communities cared for each other.

Since the government would not provide aid to Black folks and people with disabilities – and those communities often overlapped, the Black Panther party established “survival programs” such as health facilities, education programs, and food distribution programs. The Black Panthers understood that in order to survive in this world, they had to take care of themselves and one another.

Black people and people with disabilities knew then that what they faced couldn’t be beaten back by making the “right” personal choices or by nobility or hard work alone. And this week, that’s been especially evident in the almost-murder of Julius Jones, whose death sentence was barely commuted, and the acquittal of all charges of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Marginalized peoples couldn’t bootstrap their way into wellness; they needed to give according to the gifts they’d been given and to receive from the gifts that others had been given.

Just as oppression ripples (from an individual to a family to community and back in, all affected like concentric circles), healing works like that, too. The Black Panther party’s revolutionary concept of self-care showed us that healing works like that, too… And that community care is a form of self-care. We cannot call ourselves healed if our communities have unmet needs for healing. We have gifts to give and healing to unleash.

And that’s what Paul believed too, judging by how he addressed different communities of early Christians with a similar message to what we heard earlier. “If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving.” 

Paul gives us encouragement to give of what we have been given to care for our communities and thereby care for ourselves. The Black Panthers’ model is quite similar to that of the early Church. And its members acted a lot like disciples.

Suffering, Assumption, and Choices

I want to needle a little deeper on this point about the Black Panthers and Crip Camp. Because they remind me of something else I hope we’ll keep front of mind while we think about how we engage in new partnerships of mission.

If you and I have had a conversation lately, then I may have talked to you about a podcast I’ve been obsessed with. It’s called Maintenance Phase, and it features two co-hosts debunking myths about wellness culture, dieting, and fatphobia – which is discrimination and bias against people who have fat bodies. 

One of the things I love about Maintenance Phase is that it’s equal parts compassionate and brutally honest and ridiculously well researched. And it weaves together how interconnected forces of oppression are. Fatphobia is rarely just that – it’s also linked to racism, economic inequality, and more. In one episode, the hosts talk about how it came to be that people in wealthy nations like the U.S. became obsessed with consuming tons of protein. 

And it has a lot to do with partly well-intentioned but ill-informed British colonizers in the 1970s telling African parents that breastmilk was inferior to Nestle’s baby formula – all the while selling them expensive formula that couldn’t be safely kept without refrigeration, which wasn’t available.

Babies would become sick from this formula, and Nestle tried to deny any wrongdoing, even though they heavily marketed formula to parents who didn’t need it but who also couldn’t safely feed it to their children.

The problem that British colonizers were trying to solve was what they perceived as parents feeding their children the wrong foods – not knowing how to feed their children. 

But the real problem was starvation. And that was both a problem for which European empires were partly responsible and also a problem that a benevolent overlord couldn’t come in and take credit for solving.

I won’t give away the crux of the hosts’ findings or conclusions here, but I think this paints a clear enough portrait of what happened: people saw a snapshot of suffering and assumed that they knew best how to solve their problems.

And so many times, those problems go far deeper and are far more complex than personal choice. They’re often about the woefully small slate of choices people have. Or the only choices remaining in the midst of personal and community tragedy.

Be Curious About Suffering

Our challenge, then, is to be curious enough to wonder why tragedy and poverty exist. Because we’ll find, almost every time, that people do not pre-plan or choose their suffering.

When someone’s suffering seems to be the consequence of personal choice, it’s easy for us to do nothing. In fact, it might seem morally imperative for us to not choose to help. Because helping would indicate approval of one’s personal bad choices.

But if someone’s suffering seems to be tied up in complicated forces, then to ignore that suffering would be to implicate ourselves in complicity.

And therein lies the temptation to paint others’ suffering – even our own – as the consequence of personal choice.

Jesus often dug deeper – understanding that the woman at the well was outcasted because of misogyny and that a man lowered in through the roof of a house for healing bucked respectability because he was in pain.

Suffering is complicated. Our own suffering is tied up in the suffering of others. But our own healing is tied up in theirs, too. We cannot do self-care without doing community care.

For someone like me who is introverted and who has an unhelpful inclination toward independence, this is hard. When I am in a position to be a helper, it seems easier to isolate – to think that I can solve all my own problems. But that is not a permanent position. Nor is it a seat of unique honor. 

We have different gifts from God. And what we have, we have the opportunity to give. And what we don’t, we have the opportunity to receive. Let us stay curious about suffering and healing so that we can be non-prescriptive and cooperative. Our suffering may be intertwined, but thank God, so is our healing.

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