1 SPIRITUALITY AND religion . IN social WORK PRACTICE. By Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, . Over the past two decades there has been expand- jurisdiction, employees of a corporation, or a network ing exploration of spirituality and religion in social of allied professionals. It was certainly a significant work, although they remain largely on the periphery of recognition in my own life as a professional commu- the profession's educational enterprise and mainstream nity organizer. practice. One night in San Francisco about 20 years ago, I. Why have social workers shown increasing inter- was riding in a car with another organizer and two est in spirituality and religion ? middle-aged African-American women who were The root reason may be that our modern society, leaders in our organization. One woman consistently with its demands that for many are psychologically punctuated her comments with the phrase, Praise and emotionally overwhelming, plus its virtual dis- God which struck me as inane at the time.
2 Within placement of community and family, has created myr- six months I had come to reflect on the fact that, over- iad conditions of life that are spiritually and relig- whelmingly, the lives of the people with whom I had iously shattering. been working virtually all low- to moderate-income Moreover, growing numbers of congregational people of color and working class ethnic whites . clergy of all religions and denominations, responding revolved around their religious and spiritual beliefs. to their members' needs for counseling and therapeutic Their first organizational loyalty was to their church, care, have sought secular education and training that whether for religious, spiritual, social , cultural, would enable them to provide psychological and emo- educational, political, or economic reasons. What was tional treatment. They in turn have had a spiritual and inane was that I, along with the majority of my col- religious influence on the individuals and institu- leagues, was ignorant not only of what religion and tions including social workers and schools of social spirituality meant to them but in my own family's tra- work that have educated and trained them for such dition as well.
3 How in the world, I asked myself, could practice. I be useful to them in making long-extended life changes? Of course, I couldn't which was the impe- Recognizing Spirituality and religion tus to my becoming a rabbi and significantly increas- My social work education and training ignored the ing my understanding of spirituality and religion . Sub- spiritual and religious dimensions of practice, which sequently I came to work within the field of interfaith probably corresponds to the experience of the majority congregational community organizing, which since of the profession's practitioners. As a social worker then has evolved into one of the most noteworthy are- and social work educator, however, I know that practi- nas of grassroots community organizing. tioners in the field have increasingly recognized spiri- It's certain that once we begin to consider the role tuality and religion as important variables in the lives of spirituality and religion in the lives of our profes- of those who are the profession's beneficiaries sion's beneficiaries, soon after we're going to begin whether casework or group work clients, residents of a having insights into how we can intervene more effec- neighborhood, members of a religious congregation or tively.
4 Thus the social work role relative to spirituality cultural community, constituents within a government . Moshe ben Asher is the Co-Director of Gather the People, a nonprofit organization that provides education and training resources for congregational community development and organizing at , and teaches in the Departments of social Work and Sociology at California State University, Northridge. and religion may move from one that is largely passive members or followers to vows or covenants of accep- to one that is proactive. tance. These vows embrace acceptance of authority, My own experience forced me to the conclusion acceptance of belief systems, and acceptance of defi- that any model of generalist practice that does not in- nitions of appropriate individual and collective behav- corporate a conception of the social worker's role, ior. responsibilities, and resources relative to a benefici- Religiosity typically involves awe and fear of ary's spiritual and religious interests does not address God, usefully understood as continuously keeping or the totality of the beneficiary's capacity.
5 Inevitably it failing to keep God in mind. This is not analogous to a will fail to help the beneficiary reach full potential. It small child's fear of a parent. Awe stems from con- makes no difference whether the beneficiary is an in- stant consciousness of the power of God or whatever dividual, a couple, a family, an organization, a com- one calls the creative power in the universe, which munity, an institution, or even a society. produces a sense of respect, reverence, and wonder Definitions of Spirituality and religion inspired by the genius and beauty of this power, It's useful to clarify what we mean by spirituality which is far beyond one's own powers. Fear is a con- and religion before thinking specifically about how sequence of the failure to remain conscious of God or they might be incorporated in our practice. the creative power in the universe that is, the failure The dictionary defines spirit as: animating force; to continually recognize that the creation operates by incorporeal consciousness, , lacking material form certain rules with the result that one anticipates suf- or substance, intangible [out-of-body experience]; fering damaging or even destructive consequences.
6 Heavenly mindedness; and that which belongs to the (Dive into the deep end of the pool and forget for church none of which is terribly helpful. five minutes that the creation requires you to move In my work with people who have said they were your arms and legs see what happens. Seek to make seeking or had a spiritual experience, they were usu- a living by repeatedly holding up 7-11 stores see ally referring to one of two things. Typically they what the creation has, so to speak, in store for you.). were talking about (1) a feeling or experience of unity What's the connection between spirituality and or closeness with God or whatever they regarded as religion ? Why do most spiritual seekers become eternal and transcendent, or (2) a feeling or experi- followers of religions or members of religious con- ence of lightness or joy, absence of mundane con- gregations? sciousness, and diminution of anxiety and fear. The answer is a variation on the theme of spiri- Israel Salanter, a 19th century rabbi who pos- tuality is like a bird.
7 As strange as it sounds at first sessed what nowadays we would regard as mind- blush, it takes discipline and organization for most blowing spirituality, wrote: Spirituality is like a people to achieve spirituality so we have religions bird: if you hold onto it tightly, it chokes; if you hold and congregations. onto it loosely, it escapes which sounds like a very There are endless examples of religion disciplin- tricky business. Possibly he was trying to teach that ing spirituality to better effect through the use of the experience of unity with God is not something to ritual, which is a word that's terribly misunderstood be achieved casually but requires disciplined learning and has an extraordinary amount of contemporary and practice. baggage, usually denoting empty and meaningless How then do we define religion ? activity to those who are religiously uneducated and religion may be understood sociologically as a unpracticed. formal set of beliefs, doctrines, laws, practices , ritu- To better understand the purpose and power of als, and assignments of authority, which are linked to ritual in religion , imagine that you have a new client an explanation of the creation and governance of the who says: I want to take better care of myself and universe.
8 They are accepted by their adherents as di- quit smoking, but I'm having a tough time, and I'm rectly or indirectly divine in origin. religion also en- getting advice all over the map on what to do. The tails the formation of one or more federated nurse in my doctor's office says I should use the communities in which the commonweal is thought to patch' it worked for her but I want to get away be the result of shared thinking and action that from the nicotine in one fell swoop. One of the guys revolves around acknowledgment of God, some other on the assembly line, he's into Zen Buddhism, says I. higher power (which we know from 12-step groups, should try meditation that worked for him but it's although the reference here is to power that is strictly too strange to suit me. My pastor at church says I. other worldly ), or a set of principles thought to should pray for strength to overcome the craving, but govern and sustain creation. I don't have that kind of faith.
9 Now my uncle says I. The basic definition of religion is to bind, in should organize an all-day hike up Mount Whitney, the sense that we are bound to the promises we make. and take as many relatives and friends as I can get to So it is that virtually all religions seek to bind their come with me. He says that when we get to the top, I. should tell God and everyone else who's there that I'll 2. never again poison myself or other people with ciga- The matrix is based on a learning model in which rette smoke, because we're God's creations. His idea it is assumed that, at any moment, there is one learn- kind of intrigues me, but I'm leery about all the time ing partner who is more knowing and one who is less and energy it would take. knowing, with three intervention options open to It's obvious that the quality and impact of spiri- the more knowing partner: tual experience is likely to be intensified by the ritual of an all-day climb and, on the mountain top, making Ask a question, which assumes that the momen- tarily less-knowing partner has extensive re- a vow to God and all those near and dear precisely sources of all kinds (intellectual, cultural, because of the investment required.)
10 Psychological, emotional, social , biological, and Religious rituals are investments through which certainly spiritual and religious);. we symbolically communicate with ourselves about Propose options, which assumes that the momen- what we value and how we are to act to protect those tarily less-knowing partner has moderate re- things and, as such, they play a crucial role in nurtur- sources; or ing and sustaining spirituality. Make a statement, which assumes that the mo- social Worker's Spirituality & Religiosity mentarily less-knowing partner is almost entirely What's the connection between our spiritual and reli- without resources. gious convictions, or lack of them, as social workers, The matrix also reflects my personal experience: and those of our profession's beneficiaries? Is there a when my life was entirely secular, I was limited to potential interaction between our spiritual and reli- raising questions about spirituality and religion ; when gious energies and those of the people with whom I began to develop a spiritual life, I was able to pro- we're working?