Learning Outside the Comfort Zone

4th October 2016 - by James Trewby

Group with volunteers at the the 'Los Americas' Centre
Group with volunteers at the the 'Los Americas' Centre
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In this Year of Mercy, we are called to practical action – service and acts of charity. But we mustn’t forget that learning is a vital part of doing!  Embracing learning opportunities to take us out of our comfort zones and encounter something of J and P issues gives us firsthand experience and passion to share with young people.

 

 

“When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’ he said ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13: 1-15)

The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is one I often explore with groups of educators. It’s a beautiful story of service and of being really present to those you are with. But I believe it contains another message from Jesus to his followers – the challenge to learn by ‘trying on someone else’s shoes’. Putting oneself in a new position opens up the opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.

In his book ‘Empathy and the Art of Living’, Krznaric explores the power of ‘empathetic adventures’. He cites various examples, including Gandhi, Francis of Assisi and George Orwell (some of whose “temporary experiments in living the life of others” are explored in ‘Down and out in London and Paris’). Krznaric goes on to suggest that “many of the most important shifts in history have taken place not when there has been a change in governments, laws or economic systems, but when there has been a change in the social fabric of empathy”.

In this Year of Mercy, we are called to practical action – service and acts of charity. But we mustn’t forget that learning is a vital part of doing! I feel this is especially true for those of us privileged to work with the young (teachers, parents, youth workers, catechists and so on). Embracing learning opportunities to take us out of our comfort zones and encounter something of J and P issues gives us firsthand experience and passion to share with young people.

One of the joys of being the Columban’s Justice and Peace Education Worker is offering these kind of learning experiences. Over the last year this has included taking teachers, parents and youth workers to witness acts of non-violent direct action, visit prisons, ‘sleep out’, interview and write campaign letters with homeless and ex-homeless people, encounter Christians and Muslims involved in Inter-Religious Dialogue in the UK and (via the internet) Pakistan, a learning visit to the ‘borderlands’ between Mexico and the USA, and meeting with refugees and asylum seekers.

What kind of learning might this result in?

Jesuit youth worker, visited prison:

We all have the potential to do better and to be better, and we have someone who is fiercely and loyally campaigning for us – Jesus Christ. We need to be that person for others. This is what this experience meant for me. 

Youth worker, visited refugees with the Columban Lay Missionaries:

It was particularly eye opening as the women were completely honest about their experiences of detention centres which I hardly knew anything about beforehand. The stories the women shared were shocking. I don’t think I would have ever had the chance to hear their stories in any other situation.

Parent, visited prison:

It gave us a chance to understand what it means to visit those in prison, and how the acts of mercy that Pope Francis is encouraging us to undertake in this Jubilee year are not that hard. We just need to get on with them, knowing that God loves all of us.

Activist and educator, visited Columbans at USA/Mexico border:

I learned about some of the complexities behind the news and political rhetoric and gained experience and examples to draw upon when challenging the attitudes of people with no experience of the situation and who are heavily influenced in their views by the media.

Volunteer youth worker, sleep out

I can’t write about what it feels like to lay your head on a pavement every night, or how it feels to have nowhere private to go to the toilet. But I can say that I learned an awful lot. Mainly about how much I don’t know. It was a quiet kind of learning; a brief but sobering education that gently shook my shoulders in a very practical and unassuming kind of way. It has left me with questions, questions about justice, human dignity, charity and statutory responsibility. And it has challenged me to play my small part in campaigning for change.

School Chaplain, visited prison:

It was a humbling and touching experience that taught me more about compassion, mercy and humanity. This visit to a prison, especially so close to Christmas, was an honour. Any preconceptions and prejudices I had before I went quickly melted away. My faith in God’s goodness, grace and redeeming love has been strengthened and I am inspired to do more to share it, especially with those who are most in need of it.

If you’re an educator and wonder why you haven’t been invited to any of this, please get in touch (education@columbans.co.uk) and/or find ways to create your own ‘empathetic adventures’!