The first Young Marist Neighbours programme (in July 2007) left for Kaingaroa Forest Village with a boot full of tools. Hammers, saws, drills, nails —- anything that might be useful to build or to fix. We thought that we might be fixing a church. Maybe building a shed. After all, this was a “social justice” week and social justice often sounds like “service.” In his wisdom, Mike Jones, the principal of the little forest school we were visiting, did not dissuade us. He simply responded: “if you think that would be helpful…” Nine years later, we have yet to use any of them.
Instead of building and fixing we found ourselves reading stories and swimming in local waterfalls, walking in the bush or putting down a hāngi together. All these areexperiences which become really hard to articulate when a young person heads home from their “big” experience. Simon, a participant on that very first programme, articulated his struggle like this:
Fr. Greg Boyle SJ founded an organisation called Homeboy Industries. It seeks to help street gang members from the inner city projects in and around Los Angeles to find alternatives to the gang life. In his remarkable book Tattoos on the Heart, he writes about the difference between “doing for” and “doing with.” More important than what we do FOR people, is what we do WITH them. There are always assumptions made when we are faced with a group of people, or a place, in a worse-off position than ourselves. For some of us our assumptions justify inaction, for others they compel us to action. There is plenty for us to do in each of the communities in which we spend time. However, the Neighbours programme has grown to focus on the second kind of “doing.” We go to do things together.
When we go to a small community we seek ways in which to engage with the people and the stories of the place. We seek to share life for a week and through that, to understand others, the world we live in, and ultimately ourselves. We now know this to be the place from where the most significant learning, the greatest personal change, and the clearest understanding of social justice comes. It is long-lasting because it is experienced, not just theoretical.
Sitting around the table at Te Whaiti Toitu Nui-a-Toi school, we once heard Chaz Doherty explain that his childhood was full of “doing things.” He said that even on a trip to the beach he was expected to be productive: “If you were thinking that you were going to the beach to sunbathe then you had a surprise coming! If you thought you were on the boat to get a tan, well you just got thrown off! You were either digging up pipis or you were on the boat fishing!”
The same principle applies here. We don’t come to do anything more specific than hang out, build relationships and experience a different place and way of life. However, that doesn't look anything like a holiday! If we are going for a walk in the bush, we may as well be clearing a track or setting traps. If we are meeting kids at the school, we may as well be reading with them. When the Young Neighbours groups head into the Te Urewera rain forest, we often end up with a shovel in hand. We cut tracks and dig holes. We paint murals and we clean up old urupā (graves). We are working towards the preparation of a meal, a dry place to sleep for the night in the bush, or perhaps contributing towards the flourishing of the kokako and kiwi populations. We don't go to do these things, but doing them becomes the foundation of a life-changing experience. Doing things - together - creates real connections. We are absolutely convinced that real connections are the key to understanding social justice.
There is a big difference between going somewhere to do something and going somewhere to be with someone. Either way you end up working, but the outcome is very different.