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The Perils of Professionalism Or a Revolution of the Heart

My most recent trip to the Mexican Consulate was to accompany one of our guests who needed their help. At Casa Juan Diego, we spend a lot of time waiting in lines at various Consulates. Our guests need the services they offer, but the Consulates often seem overwhelmed by the number of supplicants. We did not have an appoint-ment, but Sophia (not her real name) needed help that could not wait, so we got in line early, hoping for the best.

As we lingered in a long line of Mexican nationals that did not appear to be moving, I wondered about what had happened to me. I used to be so, well, so important!

I have all these stories that I like to tell my students about my early days as a social worker, making home visits to distressed families. Me, in a perfectly pressed cotton dress with matching hair bow and ever-ready clipboard, my professional attire, credentials and official status in almost ludicrous contrast to the roach infested housing and oppressive poverty of the families I visited. I don’t know how much I was able to help them, but it was clear to all concerned that I was an Important Person: An Official of the Establishment.

Fast-forward twenty years or so: older, wiser, or at least with more degrees, here I was, shivering in the cold, on a fool’s errand, that was almost certainly a waste of time and energy, dressed like I was going for a walk in the park, without any official position or authority of any kind. Really, what was I doing?

Would it not have been more effective, more efficient, more “professional,” to have dressed in a business suit, gone to the head of the line, introduced myself as la Doctora McCarty, waived a business card in the face of the door-keeper, insisted on seeing the Consul himself? In Latin America, indications of upper-class status such as titles, education, credentials, business suits (dress for success!), and, most importantly, an attitude of entitlement gets you far with the underlings of the world. Works that way here, too, if I remember correctly.

Mark Zwick, the cofounder and director of Casa Juan Diego, has written and talked about the problems of “professionalism” when working with the poor. Sometimes we use the term “professional” to mean that you are very good at what you do, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about “professionalism”, that is, being more important than our “clients” because of our education and experience and credentials and titles. About making them wait, since our time is important, but theirs is not. About addressing us as Doctor or Mister while we call them by their first names. About dressing up while they dress down. About our attitude of knowing what is best for them better than they do. After all, since we are helping them, we must be smarter, better, more knowledgeable than they are. The relationship between us is inherently one of a superior and, well, an inferior. After all, we are not like them!

This kind of professionalization creates even more social distance between the poor and us, and there is already plenty of distance between upper-middle class professionals and the guy sleeping under the bridge. The more status we claim as trained and educated professionals, the less there seems to be for those we serve.  From the viewpoint of the poor, our relationship is not a relationship at all, just one more experience of inequality and disempowerment.

Trust me, Catholic Workers are no better, no smarter, no nobler than others that work with the poor.  But there is a difference. Almost everything we do is about closing the gap between “us” and “them”, not widening it. We eat the same food, sleep in the same quarters on the same plastic, squeaky mat-tresses, get waked up at 2:00 am by the same sick child or crying mother. We bridge the worlds of the haves and the have-nots, something that rarely occurs in our segregated and stratified society. For better or worse, we see the world differently. Casa Juan Diego changes us.

But does it really change things for our guests, which is the question I was asking myself as I stood in line at the Mexican Consulate? Well, on one level that is a silly question. When you are working with those with nothing, it does not take much to make their lives better. A bus ticket may not mean much to you and me, but for those without transportation it means the chance to see their family, or apply for a job, or get to a clinic. A bed in our men’s house is far from the lap of luxury, but it is really, really, really better than sleeping on the streets.

But in terms of the big picture, is this not a nation that is enthusiastically cutting Head Start and food stamps and just about any program that helps the poor? Are our political and economic policies not creating poverty and misery much faster than anything a thousand or ten thousand Catholic Worker houses could do to alleviate them? Have we as a people not turned our backs on the poor?

Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the CW Movement, came of age during the great depression in the United States, also a time of overwhelming human suffering and injustice.  The economic and political policies that caused the depression, the counterproductive response of cutting government spending, the great and growing gap between the rich and the poor, the lack of legal protections for large elements of the population, all cried out for change to the existing social order.

Early on, that is what Dorothy tried to do: she marched with workers, covered strikes, used her writing to call attention to the social problems of the day. This was important, and Catholic Worker houses still do this kind of thing, but it wasn’t enough. The miracle of Dorothy Day is that she discerned through hospitality that true power is found exactly where Jesus said it would be, among the poor and marginalized, not on behalf of them. She saw that in service and solidarity to others there is power and strength not possible when we serve only ourselves.  She called this transformation, the outcome of voluntary and shared witness of and participation in the suffering of the poor, a revolution. Not a revolution of the people or of the government, but a Revolution of the Heart.

But to finish telling my story about Sophia. We did not get anything useful accomplished that day at the Consulate, and to be honest, it would not have made any difference if we had. The State of Texas had taken away her children, and the State was not about to give them back.

If you go by out-comes, you would have to say that as a helper to Sophia, I failed, failed totally. She lost her children, and, for a time, her will to live. In my struggle to fix what had gone wrong with Sofia’s case, and then later to deal with my own grief when all had been lost, I fantasized about writing a tell-all book about what had happened. I needed her children, the children that she would never see again, to know that she tried, that we all tried as hard as we could to get them back, but we never had a chance.

I lost faith in the formal structures of our social service agencies, structures I had once been proud to be a part of. I had thought I could help Sophia to correct the terrible situation with her children, to help her make critical changes in her life. During hours of court hearings, meetings, conferences and case staffings with every manner of professional, I watched as our child welfare system failed her and her family and exploited her weaknesses at every turn. It was like watching someone tied to a train track, struggling so hard to get away from the oncoming train, but struggling in vain.

Now, understand, these were well-meaning professionals; in fact they remind me of myself twenty years ago. But they were working in a system that in its formality was so professionalized, so dis-connected from her lived reality that it could not possibly help her. And these well-meaning people couldn’t see that, because they literally could not imagine what it was like to be Sophia.

Not that I am any expert on what it is to be her. She is going on with her life now, though, as happens with the very poor, when one problem is dealt with, two more take their place. But every time I see her, even though she really doesn’t know any English, she says good-bye and then in perfectly unaccented English, says, “I love you.”

From my point of view as a professional, my attempts to help Sophia were a case study in failure, to her, in some way that I still don’t understand, something happened that was right.  And that sharp, stabbing pain I get in my heart when she says goodbye just may be the seeds of a Revolution beginning to take root.

Houston Catholic Worker, June-Aug., 2013, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3.