Last week I touched upon Paolo Freire’s method of accompaniment. How would Freire’s method be integrated into an ecclesial setting? Is it possible for it to effect change among a group of people who are reflecting theologically? Nigel Oakley discusses the adoption of Freirean dialogic methodology to conscienticize middle-class Christians in the UK.
Nigel Oakley notes how Freire does expect involvement from the middle-class in Brazil in the conscientization process as long as it is a “fight alongside, not for, the oppressed.” It is pivotal in Freire’s understanding that the oppressed acquire their own liberation, but this is not to the exclusion of help from the middle- and upper- classes. Oakley also notes how the biggest danger that the Freirean method faces among members of the middle-class is domesticization:
“Paulo Freire’s work faces its biggest danger in ‘domesticization,’ or taming so that it loses its political edge. If, in translating Freire to our own context, we lose that edge, then, I contend, we lose the essence of Freire’s work: by sticking to social action that may help certain individuals cope with their situation, but not challenge the system that perpetuates the situation, then we are merely attempting to ‘ “ soften” the power of the oppressor… [ which ] almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity.”
Praxis on the level of social transformation is the course on which Freire hopes that those who employ his method will be set. Given the hesitancy of many lay church goers to mingle their faith with politics, this certainly becomes a challenge. “The real Christans work with the oppressed and are therefore part of what Freire calls the prophetic church. The educational role of that church ‘must be totally different from that of other churches’.” The Church must therefore apply theological and social reflection in order to foment the kind of transformation necessary within the faithful. Only by showing how faith can lead to social change, how the dots connect, can a congregation move forward with the praxis that Freire hopes will be inspired.
An example of just such a model is cited by Oakley in Freire’s work: Gustavo Gutierrez’s ministry with the Pueblos Juveniles includes a leadership training that encompasses both socio-political analysis and theological education. Such instruction must take place within the context of a dialogue, however, if it is to remain true to Friere’s method. Oakley cites James Blackburn’s analysis that “by virtue of their spiritual vocation to ‘merge with the people’ [acompañamiento] – as Christ himself is purported to have done – in an act of humility and sacrifice, Jesuit priests (among others) – even those armed with PhD’s – seem to have a rare ability to engage in the kind of dialogue Friere writes about. Others may find it far more difficult to shed their self-image as intellectual superiors.” This mentality and spirituality, that is essentially the same as acompañamiento, is one that fits into Freire’s matrix of the loving, humble, hopeful, trusting, and critical disposition necessary for dialogue.
Oakley also cites Ann Morisy for her attempts to use an ecclesial community ministry program to affect the members of the congregation towards a social change ethic by helping them to “recognize that Christ also died, for example, for a ‘motley group of homeless and mentally distressed’, as well as middle-class churchgoers… Against this didactic approach, Morisy’s ‘community ministry’ has two strands. It responds to ‘an issue of local concern’, but as well, in that involvement, it takes the ‘experience of faith seriously’.” Once again the danger of domesticization emerges as the ministry might be considered a product of the dominant class, a way for them to soothe their consciences and not much more. Morisy comes to the rescue here by offering a unique solution: “The coordinators must be converted to dialogue in order to carry out education rather than domestication… The period of instruction must be followed by dialogical supervision, to avoid temptation of anti-dialogue on the part of the coordinators.” The question then becomes who the supervisor would be. In my opinion it should be a collective of persons who have agreed to hold each other accountable and have been trained professionally in ministry; only such professionalism would ensure that the attitude of domesticization does not lead to the anti-dialogue that Freire warns us of.
Oakley also cites Bishop Steven Croft’s ecclesial home groups, the middle-class version of base ecclesial communities. Croft refers to them as transforming communities and expects them to discern mission projects quickly so that they may go about the implicitly Freirean process of transformative dialogue and reflection. The same dangers that exist within Morisy’s community ministry exist here within the ecclesial home groups. Having been a member of a U.S. home group that is focused on evangelization, I can honestly say that the contexts of the members are too similar to having any meaningful transformative dialogue without including the suffering members of the community that we often serve. The reflections become one sided and a pivotal voice is missed: that of those who deal daily with the burdens we share with them for only a moment. Oakley does offer a further Freirean critique of Morisy and Croft’s plans: the lack of social change praxis.
While Morisy does ask the pivotal question regarding the situation of poverty and suffering (why), she asks it of the suffering themselves, which inevitably leads to magical answers that generally affirm the mentality of adaptation, which Freire labels as dangerous and inhuman. Adaptation calls for the poor to continue in their situation of poverty and make further sacrifices to survive. Freire argues that the poor should be motivated to reclaim their human dignity and rise out of the situation they are in, which is not inherently their fault individually but society’s as a whole. “As I have noticed, Freire insists that there is always a political dimension to conscientization and therefore to education. He expects this action to change structures radically, a process that ‘hopefully’ will transform peoples’ minds. This transformation will not be without cost, but then, Friere notes that the church ‘is called by its origins to die shivering in the cold’.” Gustavo Gutierrez also argues for this same type of transformative social praxis: “It is no more ‘mechanistic’ to think that a structural change automatically makes for a new humanity, than to think that a ‘personal’ change guarantees social transformations. Both assumptions are unreal and naïve.”
 Nigel Oakley, “Base Ecclesial Communities and Community Ministry: Some Freirean Points of Comparison and Difference,” Political Theology (2004): 448.
 Ibid, 449.
 Ibid, 450.
 Ibid, 454.
 Ibid, 455.
 Ibid, 457.
 Ibid, 460.