Social Work as the Physical Implementation of Theology

Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

I had dedicated my life to religious studies until one year ago. As I was walking along the beach in Tel-Aviv with my classmates and professors, I realized that my journey needed a change to include social work. I did not have any background in social sciences and the deadlines for applications had long passed, but I felt certain that, for me, social work would be the physical implementation of theology (I also knew I would need a job when I graduated).

As my graduate program was winding down, I decided to spend this summer in Honduras working as a social worker at an orphanage. I was very explicit with my supporters and myself that I was going as a social worker and not as a missionary. I did the “missionary thing” after college and—after initially feeling conflicted—eventually disagreed with the model of evangelism and participation in the local community. Therefore, it was important to me that my job description was very clear before I touched down in Honduras. I went there to do bio-psychosocial assessments on the kids living at the orphanage, in order to submit them to the Honduran governmental authority and begin the official abandonment process.

I elevated theology high above social work until my summer at the Honduran orphanage. I now have found a new appreciation for the Code of Ethics to which social workers are responsible. About four weeks into my stay at the orphanage, and as I was finishing the assessments, my partner and I found out about abuse occurring among the children. We tried to implement interventions to reduce the recurrences and disrupt the pattern of abuse. The director of the orphanage, an American woman, had an excuse for why she would not be able to execute each of the interventions we proposed or why they would not be effective. After one week of no progress and recurring abuse, my partner and I informed the director that we are obligated to report the abuse to the Honduran government and the state in America where her non-profit organization is registered. She lamented how she felt powerless to change the situation and that children were being hurt under her watch, but in the two years she had known about the abuse, she did nothing. She hid behind a “call from God” as the reason for her presence in Honduras, for opening a refuge, and also a children’s home. She said that the reason why she could not change the set-up of the orphanage was due to lack of financial resources. God had “called” her to build a children’s home and has “provided the resources each and every day for the construction of the children’s home.”

This was her reasoning why she could not act on behalf of justice for the sake of children. It interesting that God would call her to build a children’s home so that one day, some day in the future, the children would be safe. All the while in the present, the children are experiencing abuse and trauma that is easily preventable. I have never been more grateful that I came in the name of social work and not in the name of God, because as a social worker I have a Code of Ethics I am legally bound to. The people who were there as missionaries at the orphanage have subsequently reported to me that they “can not distinguish what is truth about this summer and that everything was shrouded in lies.” Nothing has ever been clearer than when we made the decision to bring to light what was hidden in darkness (Eph. 5:13, NIV). The connection to God made people unwilling to act in the face of violence and convinced people into complacency. After all, “hurting people hurt people.”

I am astounded at the things people do or perpetuate in the name of God. When a person claims a call from God, I not only have to question the legitimacy of what is taking place, but also call into question her theology. It is tragic that lives are affected and children are traumatized due to bad theology. We should be willing to expose injustice and violence, especially if the acts are being done in the name of God. Even after writing that, I struggle with saying how one should act in the Age of Tolerance. When is someone’s theology, their theology and when does it need to be confronted? Is it an issue of power? Or is it when someone’s theology impinges on the lives’ of others? I’m not sure there is a stock answer, but I am sure that we must be able to engage with people who live and believe differently than we do. This I know is key in the Age of Tolerance.

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One thought on “Social Work as the Physical Implementation of Theology

  1. It bothers me to no end when people justify their excuses with “This is God’s way!” Yes, I believe in accepting what God has given us as blessings, but when we see abuse of power, it is our duty as believers to do what we can to stop the abuse. Not necessarily bad theology, but perhaps misunderstood theology is to blame in these matters. I’m glad you have a code of ethics as a social worker that allowed you to intervene. This is also God’s work as much as a life in the ministry is!

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