Sometimes when I am asked what it is that I do I answer by saying I work for organizations that should not exist. Like a worker centre that helps immigrant workers recover wages stolen from abusive employers, or a group of mothers that has children in death row, or a human rights centre that helps families find their loved ones who died or disappeared while crossing the desert at the border. Most recently, for the past twelve years, I have supported the efforts of a group of immigrant workers paralyzed by spinal cord injuries to find wheelchairs, diapers, catheters, and other supplies they and others need to survive. What follows is what I’ve learned from these decades of acompañamiento, the participation in the everyday mystery of people building community as together we navigate a world suspended daily between suffering and hope.
I first began this journey in 1983. A freshly minted high school graduate in Mexico City eager for adventure, I was invited by a group of Marist brothers living and working at the Misión de Guadalupe to come to Chiapas and teach. A Mayan indigenous community set deep in the mountains of southern Mexico, they had been subsisting without a school for their children for five years. Three other young men and I said yes, having no idea that by agreeing to go “teach” we were opening ourselves up to the most meaningful learning experience of our lives.
Chiapas at that time was one of many places in Latin America following a pastoral practice known in the eighties as the “theology of liberation.” Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who led the diocese from 1960 to 2000, spoke of his own “conversion” of moving from a colonialist view of trying to Westernize indigenous peoples to walking with them in their search for justice, always respecting their unique path. He earned the nickname “Tatik,” or “Our Great Father” in the Mayan language of Tzeltal, in recognition that he was on the side of the poor and the marginalized.
Tatik did not like the label of liberation theology. He said that there was no need for it since he and the brothers were just Christians trying to follow the teachings of the gospel and the doctrine of the church. We were hearing sentences like, “Our work centres on a preferential option for the poor,” and, “We must accompany the efforts of oppressed and marginalized communities to liberate themselves and build a society where everyone can have life in abundance.” At the time, a lot of this discourse just went over our teenage heads; we were busy feeling very cool living in the mountains without electricity or running water and walking hours to get to our jobs. But what we saw day in and day out were Marist brothers, nuns, priests, indigenous catechists, and laypeople walking and working among the poor, the excluded, and those bowed down—the anawim. They shared with us an understanding of their faith as a calling from God to walk as Jesus walked, to love as he loved. They were committed to learning to read and interpret the Bible from the perspective of the poor and to act in consequence. And they called all of this acompañamiento pastoral—accompaniment.
Thus began a lifelong journey. After my year in Chiapas I went back to Mexico City, attended Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where I received a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy, and was part of the student movement that fought and won to keep college free in public universities. I participated in the Christian solidarity movement supporting Guatemalan refugees, creating the connections that led to my involvement in Nicaragua’s solidarity movement. After college, I went to Estelí, Nicaragua, to help launch Universidad Campesina at a local faith-based non-governmental organization to train farmers in organic agriculture. Back in Mexico I coordinated “Caminemos Juntos” with Carmelite monks and nuns in the mountains of central Mexico.
In all of this I was trying to live my life in a way that allowed me to keep my passion for justice integrated with my faith. It wasn’t always easy; there were many moments when I felt lost. What helped me keep going initially was my conviction that if I was to become the kind of person I wanted to be, I had to continue accompanying my people in its struggle for survival and liberation. As the years passed, this sense of duty was replaced by something simpler, namely, a joyful calling to recurrently “fall in love” with God’s children, particularly with those anawim I found in Chiapas for the first time.
The Living Hope Wheelchair Association was formed in 2005, after Harris County Hospital District authorities stopped providing medical supplies to those without insurance. Here we were in Houston, a city that is home to the largest medical centre in the world, and a group of men and women who broke their backs helping build this city were faced with a crisis of survival. They chose to organize themselves, selling flowers in the streets, raffling TVs in churches, organizing car washes, and selling food to gather resources and buy medical supplies that they would then share among themselves. For the first few years they were able to get enough medical supplies to get by, maybe 30 catheters instead of the 180 that most of them need every month, or giving a little help to someone to buy a new battery for their electric wheelchair or a new foam cushion to help prevent pressure ulcers. Now, fourteen years later, Living Hope is able to distribute enough catheters, diapers, and wheelchairs to anyone who shows up to our monthly supplies distribution day, including a growing number of US citizens.
Working with my brothers and sisters of Living Hope has been an honour and a privilege. I have grown and learned by working with them, but it has also been a constant challenge, trying to uplift and get recognition for their collective leadership while avoiding making them targets of hate groups or repressive government actions. It is also challenging because of the everyday suffering and pain they confront as a result of their injuries and unjust policies. Just in the past few months we had to bury three of our members who died from different causes linked to their injuries and a lack of access to adequate health care. Meanwhile immigration continues to be criminalized, basic social services are being eliminated, and the border has been militarized. The rage I feel when I see the pain of my brothers’ and sisters’ families and think of the impact these policies have had on their lives is only endurable when transformed by the solidarity and compassion I experience when the group comes together to respond to these situations. The tension between these contradictory feelings has been a constant in the more than three decades I have been doing this work.
So, what is accompaniment? Accompaniment, particularly with communities that have experienced the trauma of oppression and marginalization, is a process that starts by acknowledging the full humanity and dignity of the people we want to accompany. Recognizing (a.k.a. reorganizing our cognition) that there are systems of power, ideas, policies, beliefs, and attitudes that dehumanize some and privilege others is needed if we want to be able to join in the efforts of a community to transform its complex history and context. Accompaniment demands creating and holding the conditions for a dialogue among equals. We are challenged to suspend the certainty of our knowledge or expertise if we are to be open to listen, learn, and follow the leadership (information, knowledge, and wisdom) of those who are expert survivors of the reality we want to transform.
Accompaniment has a concrete material dimension of taking time and making an effort to displace ourselves and go meet people where they are. This means getting out of our comfort zone, walking to the encounter of “the other,” and making ourselves vulnerable to be challenged by them and their reality. In my experience working in Chiapas, Nicaragua, and central Mexico, this literally meant walking for hours, sometimes getting stuck in the mud and rain and getting so tired that you started asking yourself what you were thinking when you chose to do this! Accompaniment often means being pushed to your physical and emotional limits, but at the end of this effort the joy of having arrived at a community where you can eat, talk, and pray together is a reward and a reminder of why we started the journey, providing nourishment to begin again and work for a new day.
Accompaniment also has a temporal aspect. For trust (confianza) to develop, one must invest in the process and commit to continuity, often over many years, even decades. It also demands a high level of communication and synchronization, not just moving but moving together, with a shared rhythm (not unlike accompanying someone with the guitar and the piano—being on the same song and page). This means being willing to let go of privilege and control and accepting that someone else, namely, those who are more directly affected by the issues we are working on, are the ones who must take the leading voice. Accompaniment is never about parachuting in to save “the other.” It is not about discovering an issue, problem, or community, and then colonizing it, jumping to propose solutions that reduce the people to a problem without asking for their own definition of the problem or their ideas for solutions. It is rather always about sharing power, risks, and resources so that together we can heal, grow, and thrive.
While working with and learning from the beautifully diverse social movements in the United States over the last few years, I have been paying more attention to the personal dimension of accompaniment as a journey of mutual rehumanization, healing, and transformation. The power we as the pueblo creyente are building has to be substantially different from the kind of power we are resisting. (Pueblo creyente literally translated to English comes out as “the people who believes.” It was the name that the Catholic communities of San Cristobal Chiapas chose for their movement in the 1990s—a mixture of pastoral diocesan assemblies and a social movement.) It has to be love in action, a metanoia through grace received and transposed, one that pierces through the metastasis of that power which serves a system that gives life in abundance to few and death and suffering to many. Our witness is local, but its lifeblood can grow and spread like a mustard seed. It is centered on our shared dignity. It heals the person and the community, and helps transforms history for the common good.
As I am finishing writing this we are still grieving for the white supremacist massacre in El Paso, the shootings in Dayton and California, the massive raids in Mississippi, all while immigrant children are still held in cages and government attorneys question whether these children have a right to soap, toothpaste, and beds. There are very real reasons to feel anger and fear; there is a whole system of control and economic and political gain built around artificial fear and demonization of “the other.” Where will hope come from in times like this? How can we accompany our loved ones, our families and communities, our country to transcend this terrible situation?
I believe fear is the memory of violence and trauma is the fixation of that fear, a painful rupture of the continuity of our own humanity connected to others. I have learned, while working with Living Hope and many other communities in resistance, that healing is the process of recovering power and control over our fear, over our memory of the pain and violence we have suffered. Instead of focusing only on this memory, thus getting trapped and paralyzed by it, we can choose to focus on what helped us survive, in what made us resilient. We acknowledge our emotional, physical, and spiritual strength; we remember and give thanks for the solidarity of those who helped us survive; and we find God’s presence accompanying us through it all. We remember we are never alone, and that we have never been alone. Instead of seeing only our pain and fear, we can see that another world is possible when we find the courage to build it in our own communities. If someone asks me how I can have hope in times like these, I answer that it is because I have a good memory.
Working with Living Hope and other communities, I have been able to witness what I can only call a mystery: Suffering and injustice that can make us bitter or dehumanized become an opportunity to grow in compassion and solidarity. I am convinced this is not a virtue but a grace, not something to be proud of but to be grateful for. Some theologians might say that accompaniment is all about responding to kairos with a spirit of kenosis in order to build and live in koinonia. I am no theologian, so I will just say that when I was young, I was lucky enough to be taught by many brave and generous people who demonstrated that our lives and faith can only be transfigured when we live them in comunidad.
Right now there are thousands of people around the country stepping up to accompany and support individuals, families, communities that are under attack just for being who they are. More and more communities of faith are declaring themselves sanctuaries to protect immigrants. This is the kind of transformative energy that helps our communities stay alive and societies move forward; this is the kind of comunidad I want to be part of, a place where we can all become sanctuaries to ourselves and others.