Mother Teresa tells of a man who asked her to give food to a family with eight children, who hadn’t eaten in days. She took rice to the children’s mother, who in turn divided the rice in two, sharing half with her hungry neighbors. Mother Teresa said, “I was not surprised that she gave, because poor people are really very generous. But I was surprised that she knew they were hungry, because when we are suffering, we are so focused on ourselves, we have no time for others.” This story illustrates a spiritual act of peer helping that provided healing for both the recipient and the giver. It is also a model of what we hope we are fostering in peer helping work — the art of connecting in the spirit of love and sacrifice.
What motivates an individual to see beyond their own troubles or needs, to sacrifice, to help another? The answer is a spiritual one, and one that needs to be addressed in all our peer helping work, if our work is to be truly effective, resulting in life changing habits. Most Peer programs do a competent job of preparing youth with the interpersonal skills needed to perform peer helping service. Many give this service when asked, out of concern for others and do experience a sense of self-worth as a result. Too often, however, compassion and the awareness of needs of others isn’t a spontaneous habit that is practiced in daily life. Why should we help others, unless we’re asked to do so?
There is a spiritual yearning in every human being which is the source of his/her highest dreams, thoughts, ideals, and desires. It is a mysterious urge that frequently can’t be named. But it can be sparked into life by an example, discussion, experience, or important relationship. Young people are particularly responsive to the yearning, because adolescents are very idealistic and hopeful. What emerges from this spark, if nourished, is heart knowledge, which is a definition of spirituality. When the heart is connected with skills, we see what John Ruskin meant when he said: “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”
The difficult task is how to develop spirituality in preparing youth for peer helping work. To do so requires a sense of awareness of this element on the part of the leader and his or her commitment to its importance. When this exists, one can find many ways to foster it in others.
People of all ages love stories, but especially, children and youth. The story of the Good Samaritan, known universally and referred to by many, is rich in material to teach fundamental principles of spirituality, as well as peer helping. This story contains five themes, that when taught and discussed can give new importance to the skills we teach, as well as the heart knowledge we hope to foster.
The first is, that the least likely person may be the one most wiling and most effective in helping. It was shocking that a Samaritan stopped to help because Samaritans hated the Jews. But he was moved to compassion. Peer helpers often think they have noting to offer another, or that their problems are worse than others. Yet often the sufferer knows what suffering is and may be best equipped to feel with someone in need.
No one can help from a distance. We have to get involved. A helper needs the skills to know how to come close, to find out how another is wounded, and what help is needed. One needs to be able to listen for feelings, withoutjudging, be accepting, showing respect, and encouraging. He or she must also give the other the dignity of self-reliance, while offering support, but not dependency.
There is risk. The Samaritan might have been attacked himself while attending to the traveler. Risks peer helpers may experienceare rejection by their own friends, refusal of their help, or the help is not effective. These risks have to be weighed against the desire to help. Examining the cost of helping is a spiritual struggle that often results in spiritual growth for the helpers.
Usually help is needed now — not when it is convenient. Helping takes sacrifices of time, energy and pleasures. Tomorrow may be too late. The Samaritan interrupted his own journey to help.
Finally, help must be given from the heart, unconditionally. The traveler may never have know who helped him. Unconditional help is hard to give. It’s human to want to know if our efforts made a difference. We often want a thank you. Giving without expecting anything in return is a real spiritual act. One has to ask, “Can I get involved, take risks, make sacrifices, without expecting anything in return? If so, what do I gain?” In struggling with these two questions, the spiritual spark in each person is fanned into flame.
One of the lessons I teach in training is to ask students to talk about someone, other than their parents, who has had a positive influence in their lives — someone who didn’t have to take an interest in them. Their stories illustrate these five themes. The students mention sacrificial involvement, not-judgmental listening, encouragement, and most have never told the person how much they enriched their lives. I ask why they think these people did this for them. They struggle for answers, wondering, reflecting, and some, gradually understanding the real meaning of love and caring. Then, I remind them that they, too, can have such an influence on others, even in their next encounter with someone.
Peer Ministry, a religiously based Peer Helping program, intentionally interweaves stories and passages from the Bible as part of each training session to provide spiritual growth and to lead youth to apply the skills they are learning to their daily lives. Some stories are acted out by the youth, such as the blind beggar in the lesson on questioning [You need to add more detail here]. The welcoming a stranger lesson is illustrated by the story in which Jesus tells Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree so that Jesus can go to his house for dinner. Zaccheaus, a wealthy tax collector who used his position to cheat Jews and enforce Roman domination, was disliked and avoided by most people in that area. Jesus reached out to him, despite the criticism of others. Sometimes Bible verses are discussed for their relevance to peer helping, such as “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a sharp word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 12:1-2) Students attest to the impact these enactments and discussions have on their thoughts, comprehension, hearts and faith. If it is not possible to use Bible stories, examples from literature, incidents from the paper, TV shows or movies that are well chosen can also lead to spiritual awakening.
A story is told of a little girl who was standing with grandfather by an old-fashioned well. They had just lowered a bucket to draw water. “Grandfather,” asked the girl, “Where does God live?” The old man picked up the little girl and held her over the open well. “Look down into the well and tell me what you see.” “I see myself,” said the girl. “That’s where God lives,” said the old man, “He lives in you.” If we believe that God lives in us, then it is the greatest gift we can give to others to reveal that in the way we interact with others, whether in our homes, school, neighborhoods or communities. It has been said that most individuals have found God’s care and love most clearly in and through others. Perhaps this what Mark Twain meant when he said, “One learns people through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect.”
Peer Helping is a spiritual challenge, requiring both love and skills. When heart knowledge is neglected, the possibilities of what positive good could happen, both to the recipient and the giver are diminished. When love and skills work together, we should expect a masterpiece of what peer helping can accomplish in and through the lives of those involved.