Empowerment: A magic wand?

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Benny Bong –

has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

I cannot forget the scene. There we were, about a dozen social workers and counsellors mulling over how to assist a family with a variety of needs.

The family, like many “disadvantaged multi-problem families”, had a single parent who had to raise her three young children. She had to contend with her own ill health, special needs for one of her children, and little support from her family or friends. On top of these, she had mounting debts and arrears, and had to deal constantly with threats of eviction and disruption to her utilities.

For the last few years, they had approached various helping agencies. Now, the family had run out of options and if this mother could not house and care for her children adequately, they might be removed from her and placed in foster care. The sense of helplessness was felt by all, family and helpers alike.

As we toiled over how to help this family, I made an observation: “How can we expect our clients to be empowered when we ourselves feel disempowered? If twelve professional helpers cannot render assistance to this family, it’s a tall order to expect them to help themselves and be self-resilient.”

Empowerment is a very trendy concept these days. We all want to be empowered and see it as a way of exercising more control over our lives. Some even perceive that it is our right to be empowered to make decisions over how we live and work. Empowerment taken to an extreme can be another expression of our self-absorbed nature.

For those of us who are involved in helping others, we may be tempted to see empowerment akin to waving a magic wand – and miraculously all problems vanish. But empowerment involves exercising personal responsibility as well. Paying the debts of a gambling addict does not stop this problem from recurring. No one can empower you unless you want to be empowered – unless you want to behave responsibly.

Beyond personal mastery, the ability to choose and the responsibility to act, empowerment is also about social justice. For those who do not have the ability or the opportunity to choose, empowerment is about giving them access to resources and opportunity, and setting them free.

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I am reminded of a short chorus that goes: “There’s a river of life flowing out from me; makes the lame to walk and the blind to see; opens prison doors and sets the captives free!” This chorus encapsulates part of the Gospel message and the work of social justice. Many people are restricted by their disabilities, be they physical, emotional or mental. Some are blinded by their fears. Others are captives to lives of poverty and imprisoned by societal prejudices. We are called to set them free, just as Jesus has freed us from the penalty of our sins.

But some of us may ask: How can we empower others when we too feel powerless? I am reminded of the verse in 2 Timothy 1:7 – “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (KJV)

To be empowered, we must first allow His Spirit to fill us, to take full control of our lives. It was this filling of His Spirit during Pentecost that turned the fearful disciples to fearless disciples; from hiding behind locked doors to openly proclaiming their faith. Only with His filling can we then be propelled by His love for the downtrodden and the disadvantaged. Only through His indwelling can our hearts be enlarged to encompass the needs of others.

Finally, to do good well, we must also apply wisely the sound mind He gives to us. God does not want us to simply be do-gooders. He wants us to do good well.

If we can do this, the river of life that the chorus speaks of will flow out of us and out of those whom we touch. This enlivening experience is what the Lord states as His will for us to live life abundantly (John 10:10). This enlivening experience is another expression of being empowered and of empowering others.

[updated 10 April 2014]