Marcia Owen: Affirming the dignity of our neighbors

Photo by Lissa Gotwals

Justice and healing from violence are best approached by simply being with those who are suffering, says a United Methodist layperson who directs a faith-based organization.

Update:Marcia Owen stepped down from her position at the RCND in 2016 but continues to be involved in the organization as a volunteer.

Marcia Owen directs the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, a 21-year-old organization in Durham, N.C., that seeks to bring justice and healing to the community by working with murder victims’ families and offenders released from prison.

Early on, the organization was dedicated to enacting gun control legislation. More recently, it has adopted a new approach based on “being with” people affected by violence.

“You have to be near someone, near enough to touch them, to listen to them, to sit in silence with them, to share their pain, their suffering, to really understand them,” Owen said.

Owen spoke to Faith & Leadership about the organization’s approach, described in a book she co-wrote with the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, “Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence.” The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Describe what “being with” means and why it’s important, since being with someone in need and not doing anything to help is counterintuitive.

It’s not about being nonresponsive. To me, it’s about affirming the dignity of my neighbors, of humbling myself.

“Being with” makes the assumption that we are equal -- that you know best what you are suffering, and it is for me to just be present and let that be revealed over time.

From those relationships, things emerge. And that takes trust. It’s a relationship based on respect, equality, dignity, and I would also add eternity. There is no timeline here.

You have to be near someone, near enough to touch them, to listen to them, to sit in silence with them, to share their pain, their suffering, to really understand them.

If an issue or an event or a condition breaks your heart, you don’t presume to know the answer. You go in with an open heart.

Q: As you said earlier, it doesn’t mean never doing anything.

Absolutely. Personal or individual acts of love, I’ve found, necessarily give life to reform, institutional reform.

But what I had done in the past is, I had gone to institutions for resolution, forgetting that a central component of institutions -- be they social services, the criminal justice system, schools -- is that institutions can’t love.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have policy change. However, repair of the harm that we do to one another must occur in the lives of those who have been harmed and have done harm. So there’s enormous possibility in that relationship.

Q: Talk a little bit about what the coalition does.

One of the central components of “being with” is that it really can only be done for love. I’m not “being with” for profit, for security, for my needs to be met.

The organization manifests “being with” so beautifully with the vigil ministry. That was the ministry that gave birth to that realization.

After visiting with families whose loved one had been killed, I would say, “What may I do for you?” And the answer that I have gotten is consistent: “Come back. Just come back and be with me.”

That’s a need that I think people who are not close to the problem would overlook -- that maybe the greatest need is one of connection, of affirmation. How do we strengthen one another?

Q: At the same time, the re-entry ministry, for people coming out of prison, also does practical things, such as helping people find jobs, correct?

Yes. But I don’t go in with a checklist.

One of our partners in the ministry expressed, “No one has ever cared for me like this who didn’t get paid to do it or didn’t want something from me. And I know you all are not being paid to do this, and I can’t figure out what you want from me. I don’t think you want anything from me.”

And I looked at him and I said, “That’s exactly right.” And he just kind of looked at me in the most beautiful way and said, “I get it. You just love me.”

Maybe that’s the best description of “being with.” It’s like friends. When I see you, I don’t expect to have an agenda -- that you’re going to query me about all my needs. I expect you to be with me and trust that if I need to talk about something and reveal something that I will, and that you will not perceive me by my economic status or my criminal record.

You don’t measure me. Friends don’t measure each other. They enjoy one another.

Q: What do you do in this work to keep yourself from burning out and becoming cynical, or just tired?

I don’t know how else to answer it except to say that if I weren’t doing this, I would be more burned-out.

For me, this work is like breathing. I breathe in God’s love and the love of my friends and my family and community, and then I have to exhale. And that exhale, for me, is responding to the suffering of my neighbors. If I did one without the other, I would pass out.

Every time I meet a new partner who’s come home from prison and they say, “I want a faith team,” I want to cry, because I’m so grateful that they have allowed me into their life.

That is a gift beyond compare. This is why I was born. It’s no great mystery other than we were born to love, and love exists in relationship, so you better have a lot of relationships if you want to love big.

Q: Tell me about your faith background and how you got into the work that you do.

My faith background is in the United Methodist Church. My parents actually met in the choir.

I grew up in Durham during the civil rights movement. That was my first exposure to suffering and injustice. Our history of racial injustice is a history of crimes that have never been, I think, admitted to, much less repaired.

The Vietnam War really formed me as well. And then I went to Duke and I completely left the church. I had only seen a part of it, really. And then I came back.

Q: What made you come back?

There’s a lot of good there. I hope I’m quoting him right, but I think John Wesley said if I die with pennies in my pocket -- I’m paraphrasing it -- then I have been unfaithful to my God.

I think that is just so fantastic. That just trips up the ego, and it makes so clear where our security comes from.

Q: What response do you feel is appropriate to the recent Trayvon Martin verdict?

What I know would help me would be a community conversation.

One thing that I’ve found is very helpful is to gather with people who perceive harm or experience anger or frustration -- which we should be feeling regardless of the verdict.

I really want to listen to what other people have to say. Because I think that it is in listening and it is in the establishment of shared values that that kind of guidance -- and I would call it a holy guidance, actually -- is revealed.