Conscientization anyone?

Last Saturday I attended an all-day gathering of representatives from United Church Communities of Faith in our Eastern Ontario Region. Interesting to see how an old church sanctuary can be wired to offer big screen video displays and invite online participants to not only listen in but also present to us from afar.

The other big shift with our church is the emphasis being put on inclusion. It’s hardly a new concept but there’s a renewed rhetoric about being “anti-racist”. We’ve come to the place where we’ve begun to ask ourselves why people of colour, indigenous peoples, and young people aren’t interested in fitting-in with groups of older, white, privileged, folks. Such good questions being raised by members who have found their way from society’s margins into our church – often with stories of how difficult it’s been to make our church a safe place to call home.

In this institutional conversation – as someone who’s role is to be present with folks on the margins – I find there is a huge gap in the questioning. As we pull apart our own subculture’s systemic racism, it feels like we’re missing the questions about classism.

How might we engage in the “intersectionality” of questions about race, gender, and class as we work to create spaces of mutuality without losing the power of belonging to a sub-culture with deep roots?

How do I say this to my mother’s church who has trained me and supported me as a teacher and community organizer for over three decades? How do I avoid “biting the hand that feeds me?”

I find that I often hear in the rallying cries of our institution – a strong note of pride about our church. Even though the statistics are like an axe chopping away at the trunk of our institution… hearing about a dozen historic churches in our Region closing and over 40 congregations who can’t find, or afford, professional clergy to serve their dwindling organizations – I still hear us adamantly singing about how what “we have” is something that others need.

How about some good old Christian humility? What if we asked ourselves what we need to learn?

“Conscientization is an emancipatory pedagogical process developed by the educator Paulo Freire that is designed to teach students, through critical literacies, how to negotiate the world in a thoughtful way that exposes and engages the relations between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Conscientization is a process of reflection and action that is ongoing. The realities and the experiences one confronts are in constant movement and change; therefore, reflection, dialogue, and transformation are the keys to counteracting the constructed and manipulated realities the oppressor places in our paths.”

And here’s my translation:

Conscientization is a process of learning through study, dialogue, storytelling, and reflection.

The term, first coined by educator Paulo Freire, refers to a liberated world view that students gain when a class analysis exposes intentional systemic power imbalances in a culture.

For example, how is it that Canadian political policies serve to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer?

And, how do often unspoken cultural “rules” serve to maintain a status quo where shame, fear, and prejudices are subtly imbedded in our worldview?

When we begin to be Conscientized, we start seeing the divides between haves and have-nots as a result of political choices embedded in cultural norms – and not simply the fault of individuals that popular opinion would have us believe.

This blind spot profoundly affects the ability of those in privileged groups to understand how oppression works or their own role in perpetuating it. (Landreman, Rasmussen, King, and Jiang) observe that people in privileged groups have rarely experienced discrimination, so they struggle to recall‘critical incidents’ that have shaped their awareness of difference. 

Who are those parties working to maintain and grow their privilege that would have us focused on “helping the poor” instead of ending poverty and creating a mutually inclusive society?

When we begin to be Conscientized, we start seeing how privilege is reinforced by cultural norms in schools, churches, service clubs, and even our own families. These cultural norms pervade business practices and politics.

While the study process of Conscientization was first developed in countries where the divide between Oppressor and Oppressed was quite stark and clear, the same process can be used to reveal systemic racism and marginalization in Canadian culture where those same divides are much more subtle.

That divide however has been growing wider and wider among us for decades now.

A light bulb went on in my psyche sitting there in that old church. I recalled the term “Conscientization” and recognized that this is what the Spirit has led us into in our Bridging Team experiences.

First, let me say that this experiment would never have happened without the financial and prayerful support of all four (now three) levels of United Church grants. Lynn and I have had the privilege of journeying beyond the Sunday-morning box and inviting small groups of people to explore with us how and why poverty is an issue that’s getting worse in the midst of our wealthy communities.

In our first 2017 team – the people living in poverty (no – not homeless people – people who live on social assistance and struggle daily to make ends meet. You know – your neighbours.) began the process by studying a workbook called “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World”.

Then, in the next stage of the process, they were joined by middle-class mentors. The Mentors started asking “What are these “Essential Resources” you keep talking about? And “What are these Hidden Rules you keep referring to?”.

That was our first big AHA. We learned that not only do our low-income Catalysts need to understand the systemic roots of poverty and the cultural barriers, assumptions, and biases that keep the working classes in poverty – but our so-called Mentors also need to be Conscientized!!

And so, just like the Jesuits did in Central America, just like the Jesus followers did in the centuries following his execution, just like the Methodists did in south eastern Ontario when the church of England only served the landed gentry – we gathered small groups of people from different walks of life to pursue a process of study. A process with a recipe of Food, Fun, & Storytelling combined with studying systemic cultural norms that keep people apart socially and economically.

And we’ve found that:

  • Our stories shared about poverty and privilege and the shame, the humility, and the resilience of those stories are truly heard without judgement, without the offering of advice, with a real curiosity – such stories can serve to melt away the social defense systems we’ve learned.
  • Sharing food together creates common ground. And when we had to go online – we still shared the morsels of shared vulnerability that fed our souls.
  • Creating safe spaces where the magic of learning, sharing, and trust can happen is an art and not as simple as putting up a sign that says “All are Welcome”.
  • Once an experience of a community like these are discovered – there’s a desire to share the good news we’ve experienced.
  • The arts of Dignity, Hospitality, and Curiosity can be practiced – and with practice can create space where grace, faith, and mutual sharing of gifts just might happen.

Conscientization is transformative and addictive. Once experienced it provides new eyes to see. “I once was blind but now I see.” so the old hymn goes. Do we dare remove the blinders that privilege provides? Do we dare leave the sanctuaries of the status quo?  Do we dare listen to the lives of neighbours struggling right in our midst? Do we dare to learn new ways to walk where the Spirit leads?

Our Diaconnally-trained coach, Lynn has trained a group of Storytellers who are eager to share the good news they’ve experienced.

More info about this UCC supported project:

Registration link for the next workshop led by people with lived-experience of poverty…

Spiritually Blind

I can’t see how my western education has prepared me for anything but swimming in this polluted pool of privilege.

I long to swim free in the raging rivers where those who live close to the bone swim.

I can’t see how my Romanized, westernized, churchianity has prepared me for anything but thanking god for the privileges I enjoy that have been won by colonization.

I hunger to thank god for all that is free of dogma and for what I can scrounge from the forest, streams, swamps, fields and its peoples.

I can’t see how my middle class, swimming pool, status has anything to teach the poor of the world about freedom, security, trust, family, survival.

I thirst for a tribe of people who live beyond the categories of “the way things are”.

I can’t see how my hard-earned status is worth much beyond the culture of consumption that is quickly consuming the health of this planet.

I want to see.

But my soul is blinded.


Allan David Smith-Reeve

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1 Comment

  1. Kathleen Whyte

    I think I disagree Boss! Your soul sees clearly and is not blinded… it even uses its white male privilege to make the change and spread the true gospel of Jesus… is my take… and maybe upset the flow of the meeting, but that is what Jesus calls us to do… GO FOR IT!


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