Walk with light
Go and do likewise. The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the demand for professionals and institutions to help people in need, says historian Timothy B. Tyson in a graduation address to UNC social workers.
May 19, 2009 | Editor’s note: This address was given at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social work commencement on May 9, 2009.
This has got to be the most exciting time to become a social worker in many, many years. The country is a mess. Never before has there been so much work for you to do, and so little money to pay you. And we have a community organizer in the White House; someone who set aside lucrative career prospects to help mend the broken world.
Community organizing, as you know, has its historical roots in an important part of the social work profession. Whether you’re a community organizer or a social worker, either way, your parents are worried half to death -- and proud, too, no doubt.
Whether your families are proud, appalled, or both, I myself am very proud of you. My sister, Boo Tyson, is a social worker, and my sister-in-law, Lori Messinger, has an M.S.W. and a Ph.D. from this very program. I have two whiz-kid teenaged children, and I live in fear that one of them may end up a burden on society -- you know, an investment banker or a corporate executive. As I look out in front of me, I feel an enormous sense of relief and reassurance. All these shining faces and vibrant souls, saved from the witch’s cauldron of commerce. It does my pinko heart good.
I have a social work story for you today. It is a well-known story by an ancient writer named Luke, and attributed to Jesus. It starts with a question from a hostile attorney, asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus knows better than to submit to questioning by a lawyer, and so he tells this story instead. Luke 10:25-37 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, he passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
“[The lawyer’ said,] ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
To me, this seems a very good social work story -- not quite perfect, no offense to Jesus, who was not writing a social work textbook, after all, but nonetheless very good.
First, it shows that faith-based solutions have their limits. The priest and the Levite both pass by on the other side of the road. Who knows, maybe they were on their way to a conference about crime and poverty? I don’t think we should be too hard on them; after all, if I stopped on my way to work to help every person who needs help, I would never get to work, not even once. That’s one reason we need social workers.
Second, the story points straight toward the ethnic and racial implications of many of our social problems. Jesus did not make his protagonist a Samaritan at random. The Samaritans were an ethnic and religious group whose past placed them at odds with the Jews; the book of John points out that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” There is no effective social work without an understanding of the histories and identities that divide us. And social work often labors at the perilous intersections of cultures, where it is easy to misunderstand and make mistakes. That is why your training here is so important.
Third, the story points toward the need for institutions that are equipped to deal with those in need. The Samaritan does bind up the victim’s wounds himself. He risks himself at a dangerous place in the road, gets down where the pain is, and pours in oil and wine for healing. But he does not merely take the victim home with him. Instead, he takes the victim to an institution that is set up to deal with the man’s injuries. And he makes sure that the institution has enough money to do its work.
And this we should pledge to one another, regardless of whether we are social workers or merely love a social worker: that we will not see ourselves merely as individuals, but instead we will make sure that the rape crisis center, the homeless shelter, the rehabilitation programs, the elder care centers, all the institutions that we need, have enough financial support to do their jobs. Social work has to be rooted in communities, and those communities need to stand behind their social workers.