Doodling in the Margins
“To be a friend, the truest form of advocacy there is. “ D.L. Mayfield
I used to doodle in the margin of my chemistry jotter as my teacher talked. He would try to discourage me, but I think he knew it somehow helped me to pay attention. Scrawls and scribbles filled the left hand column of my book while the rest of the page was orderly and as expected.
Talk of ‘people on the margins’ reminds me of those doodling days. My family have just returned to Scotland after three years of living and serving with InnerCHANGE in South Africa. The team was based in Soshanguve, a township located on the margins of Pretoria, the administrative capital. Although over 20 years have passed since the end of apartheid, we found a country still divided and unequal. Our community experienced crime, drug and alcohol issues, unemployment and disease. A race and community which had historically been forced to the margins are still rebuilding.
Understanding our privilege
We saw much death and suffering in that place, but there at the edges we also found a space to be ourselves, to learn and to invite others into that process. My most significant learning was through friendships with our neighbours, including a dear friend Betty. They taught me about my privilege and the importance of working alongside one another. Now we’re back in Scotland, and we’re working out how to apply our learning to life in an urban margin here.
Living as some of the only white faces in a township of about 700,000 people, we could not avoid our privilege. Our race and background gave us so many choices and opportunities that our neighbours didn’t share. Understanding our privilege is essential to start seeing the power we hold and can unwittingly use. This lesson was uncomfortable but necessary as we came alongside oppressed neighbours, to avoid perpetuating that oppression. I overcame some of my guilt by supporting friends like Betty. I proofread her CV, and copied her documents to apply for jobs, simple tasks to me, but expensive for those without access to the same resources.
It was important for us to listen to our neighbours and community, to learn what they saw as issues and solutions, rather than assume we knew the answers ourselves. Our ministry had to be ‘with’ and not ‘to’ our neighbours. I hope that we will continue to reflect on our own privilege, to listen and to step out of the way to allow others to speak and to rise.
Mutuality is key
One challenge which I believe is always present in this type of informal, relational ministry is defining what we do. There is a tension between loving a person for themselves and also hoping to see change in their lives. I don’t want my neighbour to feel that I simply see her as a ‘project’ rather than a beloved person. Yes, I want to see my friends move towards wholeness, whether that’s in their own personal development, their role within the community or growing closer to God. However, if they don’t take those steps, it doesn’t mean that I’ll lose interest in them. Mutuality is key to integrity in relationships. Betty supported me as a new mother, checked up on me and prayed for me. She was also a cultural mentor, keeping me right with what to wear and when to show up!
These relationships lead to understanding. The societal issues begin to have a face and a name instead of being remote problems. For example, I saw how difficult it was for Betty to marry the father of her child: she was excluded from the financial negotiation, and then the burden of paying the hefty bride price fell on her fiancé. Even after listening and learning, I was still not equipped to advise Betty; instead, I tried to walk alongside her in that time. But through that I saw the powerlessness of women in her context.
Jesus calls us to the marginalised, who are everywhere. In every community, there are those who do not fit in, whether it’s because of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, disability, class… Oppression targets people’s sense of self, both individually and collectively. Building relationships helps us to understand the personal issues, which will hopefully lead to concern and influence on the wider cultural and structural issues at play too. Mutual relationships also offer dignity, a reminder that the individual has something to give. Betty became part of our apprenticeship program, through which she served her community. She also walked with me, loving me through difficult times.
Pioneering as being a friend at the margins
So now I wonder what it will look like to create relationships in the margins back in Scotland. I firmly believe in the power of life-on-life for transformation. All people long to be seen, known, listened to and loved, but especially those who have been ignored or oppressed by structures and society. I believe there is a Holy work in knowing and loving our neighbours, and beginning to see wider injustices and issues through their stories. As D.L. Mayfield says ‘A messy, present, incarnational love is the simplest and hardest call of all, the call that all of us were created to follow.’
It’s uncomfortable to be on the margins, outside of the establishment, and alongside those whose lives are particularly challenging. Being a friend in the margins perhaps doesn’t sound like pioneering, but I believe it’s an essential part of what the church in our nation should look like. Pioneers are on the margins of mainstream church, colouring outside the lines, experimenting and hopefully prophetically speaking to the institution. Here’s to doodling in the margins: making friends, listening, learning and championing our neighbours.
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