Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Workcamps mean to me

Thoughts on relationships and the Workcamp experience
by Mark Sundermeyer

In its truest form, a work camp is something that goes beyond providing a service. Far too often service is viewed as doing something to help someone, when the reality of the benefit is mutual and harmonious. When we look beyond the simple task of service, when we create meaningful and lasting relationships with those that we work with, those relationships color our view of the world and our place within it. 

  1. Relationships
Building relationships with the people that we are working for and with is the heart of the Workcamp experience, without it, Workcamps are simply physical acts of service. Through several trips to Caretta, West Virginia, I developed relationships with some of the people we were working with, relationships with people that I would never have imagined I would come into contact with, much less become friends with. These relationships transcended any preconceived notions that I may have had about the people of Caretta and caused me to look inward and examine how I fit in with this group of people. Surprisingly, I had very little trouble feeling at one with the community. It became clear to me that there was very little difference, if any between the people of Caretta and myself. This realization is paramount to the Workcamp experience and one that is directly in tune with Quaker philosophy. Building relationships with those that we work with allows us to see that of God in everyone, including ourselves.
  1. Bearing Witness
Another key aspect of the Workcamp is the simple experience of immersing oneself in another person’s life and struggles. This may be the most underrated part of the Workcamp, and does not require a physical outcome, but is surely a powerful component. In my trips to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I began to notice that simply viewing someone’s struggle could be affirming to even the most devastated victim. I am reminded of a sign I saw in the lower 9th ward that read,
“This is what has happened to us,
We have lost loved ones and our homes,
See this devastation and know that this is our struggle.”
People’s struggles go unnoticed in the blur of news media that engulfs us everyday. Simply acknowledging the depths and seriousness of people’s struggles is something that ties directly into our relationships with the people that we work with. If we cannot understand what other people have been through, then the work we do is nothing more than a favor. When we bear witness, we can begin to see parallels to our own lives. It is not a belittling parallel, but rather a unifying experience that solidifies our relationships. To bear witness is not limited to struggles; bearing witness is a holistic practice that includes seeing the joy in people’s lives as well. When we can truly understand each other, our sorrows, our joys, then we can begin to create meaningful relationships. This is the power of the Workcamp.  
Through the experience of creating relationships and bearing witness in service, the Workcamp gains meaning on an internal level. When service is no longer viewed as something that is done to someone else, but as a mutual exchange of experience, both parties leave the Workcamp changed and with a better understanding of their selves and one another. This change may not be predictable but it surely is a strong one. For me, this change was a gradual awareness; I began to see in my life in a different light over the course of many Workcamps as I built relationships with people and places. To the best of my ability, I began to see people as they truly were, not defined by a single struggle, but as a whole person. When Workcamps focus on building meaningful relationships and bearing witness, i.e. working in a place for more than a day, and not just painting or building, then the outcome of the Workcamp will be such that people will naturally be drawn to service, a truer service, one that would be immediately relevant and powerful in their lives.