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A Big Helping of Powerlessness
A lesson in powerlessness and the resulting reflections on the condition of certain people groups.

A number of years ago I was called out to a situation where help was needed. I jumped in my truck and went blindly into a bad situation to try to help two people that I knew well.

The house I entered was a rough place but, sure enough, there in the back were the reasons for my visit. A bunch of people were drinking and I tried to slide in beside my friends unnoticed, but I guess I stood out a bit.

The music was roaring some AC/ DC tune and there was a lot of yelling. A woman who had too much to drink seemed to need to channel some of her rage about life at someone and started taking verbal jabs at me for some reason.

Her crazed threats escalated until she breathed her ultimate intent out loud: "I am going to kill you." All eyes were on the person who was standing over me yelling. I was trying to hide my terror while the others in the room looked on.

How I got chosen for this I don't know, but even in the drunken slur of this individual's threat I could feel the gravity of my situation. I knew enough Anabaptist theology to know that I couldn't just take a table leg to this woman and run for the door.

At some point someone had thrown off the lights and, even though it was light outside, the back porch area was so sealed that I couldn't see past my nose.

So I did all I could do: I negotiated in as relaxed a voice as I could muster. I knew this woman’s children and brought that up as well.

It was a good strategy, but it really didn't seem to get through to her; the booze was making her mind fuzzy. So there I was, a little Mennonite boy with a big problem.

I was powerless. It was a real inversion as well. I was used to being the resource guy, messiah-type, to people in our community; and, suddenly, everything shifted and I needed a saviour. The short version of this story is that my friends created a distraction and I was able to bolt for the door. I had found my saviours: two intoxicated but loyal friends who helped me out of a jam. I had a big helping of powerlessness, and, I can tell you, I hated it.

I have been told that people assert power in inverse proportion to the powerlessness they have felt. I have met people who bristle at the mention of power or seeing people assert their power; but having tasted of powerlessness a few times in my life, I can tell you, it is no better.

In the book La Vida—A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty it is asserted that by the time a child in poverty is six or seven they have absorbed the basic values and attitudes of the culture. It contends that they are not psychologically equipped to take advantage of opportunities that might be given to them to break away. This cultural impoverishment renders them powerless over their environment.

Julio Santa Ana, a Uruguayan theologian, philosopher, and sociologist echoes that sentiment, and proposes that injustice springs from powerlessness. With no power to control their lives, the poor will perpetuate the impoverishment and oppression of those social structures into which they were born.

Values that have been reinforced for generations take some big interventions to change. We used to say we should empower the poor until we started to hear the paternalism in that: That means that the poor have to come to us to get power.

I don't know how you feel about yourself on this, but I certainly don't trust myself to dispense the kind of power that can lift somebody up to a higher place. So what is the power that gets people out of that hard place they find themselves?

Recently I was being interviewed and the host of the show was proposing that education was the way out of the powerlessness of poverty. I know I was supposed to agree with him so we could move on to the next point, but I just couldn't. You see, I have concluded something lately: You are not enough for you.

Jesus' life was bracketed by powerlessness.

Although education is a critical part of balancing the power equation in poverty-stricken communities, it is not enough. Learning to read is important, having a job is critical, finding a place to belong really matters, and we at ICYA invest all kinds of energy doing those things in our community. But it is possible to have all that and yet feel really empty.

Jesus' life was bracketed by powerlessness. In His birth, Jesus had to relinquish His God power; His crucifixion reemphasized His intent to empty Himself (see Philippians 2:5-11). God, through His Son, felt powerlessness and yet remained God in full power. Jesus came to "give life and give it abundantly" (John 10:10). He came to complete us, fill us, and "give us power to trample on snakes and scorpions" (Luke 10:19). The legacy of Jesus is that He illustrated through nail-pierced hands the effects of the power of love.

I have seen people chase jobs, addiction recovery, and all sorts of empowering pursuits; but, unless God is a part of it, it's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It might look nicer but our situation really hasn't improved.

Most of the kids we work with know that, though. Sister Bernadette from Rossbrook House, a local drop-in centre, told me one time, "I have never met an inner city child that didn't pray." I guess I just wanted to remind myself again.

Kent Dueck is executive director of Inner City Youth Alive in Winnipeg's North End. He holds a BRE from Briercrest and is working on an MA there, though education isn't enough for him or the people he meets.

Originally published in The Messenger, November 19, 2008.




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