I can’t think of many times in my life when I have felt as if no one would go to bat for me.
In fact, whenever I tell the story of how I came to faith and later discerned a call to ministry, much of it has to do with the incredible people in my life who encouraged me, nurtured me and occasionally went to bat for me.
My mother especially played this role for me, whether it was at school, in teaching me life skills, or putting me through college.
I’ve also come to see the tremendous value in working with superiors who support you and want to work together as a team. In listening to people talk about their jobs, one of the biggest factors in their contentment (or the lack thereof) is their relationship with co-workers and bosses and if they feel someone is watching out for them versus feeling that it’s every man or woman for themselves.
I have seen for myself that good professional connections and references — essentially a network of colleagues that back you up and speak well of you — is a tremendous blessing.
But for too many people, no such network exists. Many people have gone through life with few people who will go to bat for them. This is where we begin to see that there is more to being “down and out” than having run out of money.
Compassion International has tried to communicate this with its poverty wheel illustration. On a bicycle wheel, there are many spokes that hold the wheel together. The more spokes that are missing, the less the wheel is able to function. Material wealth is obviously one of the factors, but it is intertwined with many others.
There is an environmental spoke, for instance. If you live in an area without access to clean water, with high air pollution, or with no nearby healthcare, you are sick more often and spend more of your time, money and resources on that.
There is an educational spoke, as another example. In many parts of the world, there is still a complete lack of access to education. Here in the United States, where we think of ourselves as the land of opportunity, there remains a clear disparity in which the poorest areas of the country tend to have the most neglected, under-resourced schools. The wealthy can simply pay for better educational settings and, in some states, more and more public money is being filtered into private settings.
But I believe one of the most crucial factors is the social aspect. From what I have seen, a strong social network of family, friends and professional connections is the one variable that can most significantly help people weather crises in other areas.
Only when people have your back are you able to look ahead.
In my experience, the vast majority of families, neighborhoods and communities that experience systemic problems are plagued by a lack of people who support them and who will go to bat for them when they can’t go to bat for themselves.
I once spoke with community advocates Cathy Ramshaw and Sally Zellers in Topeka, Kan., who helped start a ministry in the city’s poorest neighborhood, and they shared that their most devastating finding at the outset was how many people were living life in isolation and without help. Many of the families don’t have someone who can, for example, say to them, “We need to get you full-time work, and I know someone who’s a shift manager and I’ll see if I can get you an interview.” Ramshaw paraphrased a quote from a book she had read: “When a friend loses a job, we say, ‘I know someone; let me make a call for you.’ When someone who is poor needs a job, we take them a blanket and a can of Beanie-Weenies.”
Sadly, some people not only have no one covering their back but have people intentionally trying to take advantage of them. That’s what Vicki Eckberg of Restoration Outreach Programs in Aurora, Colo., shared about their immigrant and refugee community. She works in direct contact with many of these families, and says that they badly want to integrate and become Americans but often end up in places that rip them off and use their naiveté for financial gain.
Going to bat for those without a sufficient social spoke in place is not only important work but very biblical work. It says in Proverbs 31, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves … defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.”
Churches have two major opportunities to do this work, both of which require commitment and a willingness to fail and endure setbacks.
One opportunity is through relational empowerment. In these ministries, we work directly and relationally with individuals and families, literally surrounding them with a new team of supporters, helping them to achieve their goals and make essential connections for healthy and productive functioning. One proven model for this comes from Circles U.S.A., which I have seen adapted by churches and faith-based organizations to include spiritual components like prayer.
The second opportunity is through public advocacy for systemic change. This is when people of faith come together under the command to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and bring attention and accountability to the needs of underserved or oppressed populations. Some confuse this with simple protesting, which affords a short-term sense of accomplishment but often doesn’t affect change. True public advocacy requires deep listening, intensive research, and then building a large enough network of people to gain the attention of community leaders and elected officials. The justice ministry of which I’m a part uses a model from the Direct Action & Research Training Center. Through this work, we’ve gone to bat for people such as at-risk students who face non-academic barriers to learning (like dysfunctional homes or malnutrition).
At the most basic level, however, the work of going to bat for others must start, as it did for me, with the realization that people in our lives have gone to bat for us, and that there are people in our communities who lack this support by no fault of their own. It’s hard to see this need in others when we are not cognizant of how we have been privileged. The “cause of the fatherless,” as it says in Isaiah 1:17, can be impeded quite handily by those of us who fail to see the shoulders on which we stand.
May we see and respond.