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Compassionate Community Work

Compassionate Community Work
By Dave Andrews
Piquant Editions
RRP $39.95

This is a dangerous book. It looks clean and safe and predictable. But it isn’t. It’s sneaky. It starts to mess with your head and your heart in unsettling ways.

I’d only got to page six before I started to feel deeply stirred inside – an unsettling combination of a deep ache, a deep longing, and a deep hope. The sentence that caught in my throat as I read it invited the reader to look at the picture they’d just been asked to draw of their ideal church community, and “look at it and listen to what it says about the kind of church community of which, deep down, you’d really like to be a part”.

And as I read that and thought just for a few seconds, I could feel all the contradictions, the pain, the frustrations, the outrage, the boredom, the disappointment, the desperation, the sheer why-the-hell-do-I-keep-bothering-with-it-all? and why-is-it-so-hard? – all the feelings I had about my experience of church – starting to churn somewhere in the depths. Because that’s where Dave had asked me to go – deep down – to reflect on something that was both precious yet painful. And it was the monster of pain that I kept in some dark dungeon in my heart that Dave’s promptings had prodded to life.

I did manage to keep my nerve and turn to page seven without running off and becoming a Buddhist … not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, let me add, but that’s for another book launch … and only a few pages on, I began to feel a little inspired by the possibility that, in the gospels and in its theology, the church has both the foundation and the potential for being the kind of radical Christian community that I have felt drawn to but unable to build in to the circumstances of my life.

And from there, I was hooked – by turns inspired, provoked, confronted and surprised, and, in the end, challenged by the sheer practicality of compassionate community work.

So, Compassionate Community Work is written as a course text book, but unlike any text book I’ve read, it doesn’t keep its subject matter at arm’s length, writing about it as object, in the third person, enabling the reader to stay safely external and scrutinising. In a strange way the book reads me. It challenges me about instrumental friendships … about a preoccupation with church … about making the focuses of my life everywhere else other than the very place where I live. It plunges me deeper into my own life – my faith and my ideas – and it calls forth a response that means I may not be the same person at the end of this book than when I started.

In a real sense, the book is about Jesus, and it offers the reader an encounter with Jesus – perhaps with the Jesus we don’t usually encounter through church services or Christian groups. For that reason, we shouldn’t be surprised that the book challenges us to make a response and experience an inner work of transformation, even healing.

It is an easy read, but not a comfortable one. It is very engaging and absorbing, yet you constantly have to put it down because you need time to assimilate and wrestle with the ideas that clash with – or sometimes clarify – your own preconceptions.

It is gently affirming yet demanding. Optimistic, even idealistic, yet very well-grounded and thoroughly realistic. Biblical in its principles, yet worldly in its orientation. Elevating of that which is truly sacred, yet unapologetically iconoclastic, shattering the myths and assumptions of complacent faith.

In these ways Compassionate Community Work stands in the rich tradition of Dave Andrew’s well-established writings, and of the life of the man himself – enigmatic, paradoxical, yet disarmingly honest, an authentic, radical Christian, whose integrity and lived, costly commitment to the God of transforming love, both inspires and disturbs someone like me, who comes across him from time to time and regards him with affection and deep respect.

One cannot but be impressed by the depth of Dave’s theoretical and practical knowledge, his biblical insights, and his drawing together of all of this, buttressed by a wide range of other authors and stimuli, into a coherent, student-centred learning module. There is a clarity of purpose and process, and a patient unfolding of principles and exercises that enable a steady building of a foundation of learning for the reader.

Compassionate Community Work is a book for activists and for thinkers. Dave holds together the competing principles of, on the one hand, doing can only reflect being and becoming, and that’s where the journey of social transformation must start, and on the other hand, faith without works is dead, and the gospel propels us to engagement with our neighbours in service that requires that we empty ourselves and lay down our lives for the sake of others. The personal and the political intersect at every level through the text … I was struck, for example, at how Dave divided the familiar list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 into personal, relational, social and political fruits.

The centrality of prayer is a key theme, as is the sense that compassionate community work is as simple, and as difficult, as loving God, loving neighbour, and loving self. Bonhoeffer’s comment that those who love community destroy community – but those who love people build community – is indicative of the gems in this book which, like the gospels it quotes so often, turn our assumptions on their heads.

Not having done any social work or community development study before, many of Dave’s concepts were new, and I wondered how orthodox they were in mainstream social work teaching. I wondered if Tony Kelly at UQ the University of Qld Social Work Department teaches about the angel phase and devil phase in community networking … or divides people into schmoozers or machers … or commends to students the 10 benefits of praying in the process of community development.

I pondered the title, too – Compassionate Community Work. One might have thought that all community development theory and practice had compassion as its core, but apparently not – and reading this book, I can see how Dave is offering as much a critique of mainstream CD and even social work as of church-ianity.

I was very pleased to see that the associated reading text for this book is Not Religion But Love. Our church council at Capalaba has used that book as a study to open its monthly meeting for the past two years. It’s provoked a lot of discussion and has helped shape, in a general sense, our church’s growing desire to be more community focused and seek new opportunities – not for creating big programs, but for loving our neighbours, even our literal neighbours, and intentionally placing ourselves at Christ’s disposal.

Compassionate community development now presents the challenges of that book in a way that people like me, and those in my church, can learn the skills and insights that will help us take the near edge of God’s world and make a difference.

Chapter 17 of Not Religion But Love begins, “Hope alone cannot bring transformation. Hand in hand with hope must come empowerment. Hope is a fragile quality that is quickly destroyed by any feelings of powerlessness.”

Compassionate community development is one of those tools of empowerment. The vision and values of Not Religion But Love, the head and heart, are given hands and feet in this excellent course book.

May I commend this as a book that takes seriously what it is to be truly human, from the pen of someone who tries harder than most to live it.

Dave, thank-you for this work of love and struggle. May it sow many seeds of hope in the grounds of despair and indifference in our cities, towns and neighbourhoods. God knows that we need it … and we need you.

David Busch is a religious broadcaster and commentator.
Available from www.lastfirst.net or www.tear.org.au