by Donell Woodson
My wife and I developed a relationship with a woman in our community named Sharon. We started out with the enthusiasm common to many people who hope to help those who are struggling. We invited her into our home and to our activities. We shared meals and resources when she asked. From our vantage-point, it seemed like the relationship was growing.
While we were caring for her, we didn’t recognize the signs of addiction. Though it seemed to me that our relationship was mutual and authentic, I didn’t notice that we were locked into roles of giver and receiver. Because of this distance that we both maintained out of habit and upbringing, I wasn’t close enough to Sharon to see what was really going on in her life.
It could be tempting to reduce Sharon to a statistic. But I am convicted that just as I bear the image of the Creator, so, too, does Sharon.
I am also reminded how our identities intersect with the places that have shaped and impacted us. The more I dove into the history and context of my neighborhood, the more I understood the factors that influenced Sharon’s life. In her case, she was the daughter of a family line that had been thriving in our community’s past.
After desegregation, some of the other prominent brown families in the community chose to move out to new neighborhoods. Sharon’s family was left behind. Her family’s story was deeply impacted by the changes in their community and the ways their neighborhood began to decline. After just a couple generations, Sharon was dealing with many of the issues that characterized her peers, but would’ve shocked her elders.
All of us are influenced and shaped - in positive and negative ways - by the communities that nurture us. I realized through my relationship with Sharon that history and context played a significant role in her life. I also understood how my own background primed me to approach our relationship from a narrow, giver-and-receiver mentality.
It takes time to explore history and the fabric of a community, but it opens doors toward greater mutuality and the opportunity to solve problems together and to work for unified flourishing. If we do not actively counteract paternalistic models of serving our neighbors, then we will perpetuate these divides and disconnection.
I am deeply grateful for my relationship with Sharon, and I am hopeful for her future. We continue to get to know each other, and I am working to pay attention to the ways I might unintentionally sideline her to becoming a “project,” rather than a friend and neighbor. My hope is that our relationship draws both of us closer to the Creator and knits beautifully into the fabric of beloved community.