Monica Short lectures in Social Work and Human Services in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University. Monica is a currently undertaking her PhD by portfolio. You can contact Monica via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Social work practice and people’s beliefs are two separate things, so why research about the church?” It is not my view that practice/actions and beliefs are dualistic or disconnected. In response to this common question I could reply with three quick statements: 1. Australia is religiously diverse (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). 2. People’s faith (including faith in non-belief or no-religion) matters. 3. Faith can profoundly impact values, identity, motivation, justice, empathy and resilience (Tillotson, Short, Ollerton, Hearn, & Sawatzky, 2017, pp. 334-335).
Being a social worker, however, I cannot help but embrace the dialogue and aim to navigate the conversation towards critical self-reflection and the discussion of narratives (case studies). One of my favourite replies to this question begins with a common social work, sociological and theological concept – belonging.
Can you think of a time when have you felt like you belonged? When you felt loved, important, significant. What did it feel like for you to belong? (Short, 2017)
Social workers well know that not everyone feels like they belong in Australian society. Pockets of disadvantage, exclusion and isolation exist, and that many such pockets are in non-urban locations (Jesuit Social Services & Catholic Social Services Australia, 2015).
What, however, does disadvantage, isolation and exclusion feel like personally, emotionally and spiritually? To help create a connection to the topic can you think of a time where you felt ignored, where your faith and/or beliefs did not matter and you felt like you did not belong?
Sam (anonymised), a person participating in the research, also personally knows disadvantage, isolation and exclusion. “There is nothing here for [people living with disabilities]. You have services [government and non-government] in Sydney in Canberra … [This is one of] those spots where [name of town] gets forgotten. In country towns, a lot of [people living with a particular disability] are ignored.” Sam also has thoughts about belonging. She explains, “That is where [church] is different, they are trying to integrate everyone in”. (Short, 2018)
Maslow (1943, para. 34) recognises that people have a need to belong. In 2016, 52% of Australians identified as Christians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016) and many of the people I have interviewed through the research ‘love’ belonging to a church (Short, 2018).
My PhD (by portfolio – consisting of books and journal articles) is bringing Sam’s and other peoples’ voices into the public domain. The focus of the research is about how the Anglican Church of Australia in rural, regional and remote communities engages with people living with disabilities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Indigenous people groups. The research is centred on the Anglican Church because nationally it contains stories about the link between loving God and care for your neighbours (Anglicans Online, 2018; New International Version, 2011, Luke 10:27), and also themes like belonging. An integrated lens with an epistemological base in social work, sociology and theology is scaffolding the research. The research methodology is participatory, and through the process, people in rural Australia are narrating and publishing their stories of engagement (Short, 2015a, 2015b, 2018; Short, Broughton, Short, Ochala, & Anscombe, 2017). Consider for example, Joan’s and Joy’s stories.
Joan (anonymised) moved from her home country to an Australian town to study. She suffered from homesickness and loneliness. Local church members noticed her and also other international students’ struggles. The church members sensitively modified their day-to-day language to encourage clear communication, assisted people in crossing cultures and aimed to build people’s resilience and confidence (Short, 2015b). Joan declares, “They share their experience with you. I was doing [a course] and it was tough during the placement… I lost weight [a lot of weight]. She [friend from church] noticed and cooked me food [and encouraged me to eat] (Short, 2015b, p. 28).” Joan also states, “I am touched by their compassion. At that time I was not a believer… Love in action touches peoples’ heart.” (Short, 2015b, p. 36)
Joy (also anonymised) too shares her experience of engaging with the church. Joy lives in a country town in another state of Australia. Joy lives with multiple disabilities, finds mixing with people confusing and has not always known kindness. On moving to a small rural town, Joy felt isolated with few resources. A neighbour invited Joy to church. Joy enjoyed church so she kept going and began reading the Bible and as a result, her life has radically changed. For example, Joy has moved from feeling isolated to belonging. Now when she walks down the street people from the church will ask her to join them for coffee or tea. Joy has found that she belongs at church and to God, belongs down the street and belongs in her community. (Short, 2017, 2018).
I am lead to believe by the 53 people from NSW and Victoria, whose stories have already been or are about to be published, that belonging occurs when the very essence of someone and what they believe is respected and valued (Short, 2017). And yes the experiences of belonging documented are not dependent on connection with church. Rather the research is presenting examples of belonging in that specific context.
To return to the original question about why am I researching rural Anglican Church engagements? Based on Sam’s, Joy’s, Joan’s and other people’s testimonies, I am becoming increasingly convinced that faith expressed in community can have a profound impact upon people’s lives and provide a powerful experience of belonging.
Another reason is to further social work, sociological and theological knowledge about grassroots initiatives facilitating faith, dignity and belonging throughout Australia. Additionally, it appears possible to incorporate this knowledge into social work practice.
What do you as a social worker think about faith and belonging? Do you have ideas that could assist the research? I would be interested in connecting with other social workers exploring similar ideas about the connections between faith and belonging, I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, let us as social workers stand in solidarity with other disciplines and let us celebrate people like Sam, Joan and Joy. Let us celebrate belonging, in church and in the community, wherever it exists (Short, 2017).
Anglicans Online. (2018). The Catechism. Retrieved from http://anglicansonline.org/basics/catechism.html
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Census: Religion. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85?OpenDocument
Jesuit Social Services, & Catholic Social Services Australia. (2015). Dropping of the edge, 2015. Retrieved from https://dote.org.au/
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
New International Version. (2011). Holy Bible: Biblica Inc.
Short, M. (2015a). The Anglican Church of Australia and engagement with people living with disabilities. St Mark’s Review, 232(July 2), 123 – 138.
Short, M. (2015b). Three Anglican Churches engaging with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Sydney, NSW: BCA.
Short, M. (2017). Belonging: Social work, sociological and theological insights into engagements with people living with disabilities. Paper presented at the SWift: Newsletter of the Australian Association of Social Workers New South Wales branch, Sydney, NSW. https://swift.partica.online/swift/ed-1-winter-2017/flipbook/28/
Short, M. (2018). Anglican churches engaging with people living with disabilities. Sydney, NSW: The Bush Church Aid Society of Australia & CBM Australia’s Luke 14 Program.
Short, M., Broughton, G., Short, M., Ochala, Y., & Anscombe, B. (2017). Connecting to belonging: A cross-disciplinary inquiry into rural Australian Anglican Church engagements with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 32(1), 119-133. doi:10.1080/13537903.2016.1256657
Tillotson, N., Short, M., Ollerton, J., Hearn, C., & Sawatzky, B. (2017). Faith matters: From a disability lens. Journal of Disability and Religion, 21(3), 319-337.