Acompañamiento is a theme generative to Hispanic theology because of the historical and social context of most Hispanics in the U.S.  Many are estranged from their families in their respective countries because of the sheer distance separating the two.  Many are here without assistance of any kind, often undocumented, and simply trying to survive.  Many are hoping to return to their homelands one day with enough money and resources to help their families get by.  Many are here to stay and must begin to find themselves within the complex cultural understandings of the U.S.  To accompany, in the Hispanic tradition, means much more than “to be with” or “to walk with”.  There is a personal level that is lost in translation.  Estas bien acompañado is a phrase that many Hispanics use to connote a sense of safety, respect, and mutual love among the persons who are accompanying each other.  Roberto Goizueta has taken this sense of the word and developed a theology of accompaniment from it.

Jesus was accompanied by many that loved him on the road to Calvary.  That act of accompaniment was a reciprocation of the love that Jesus showed the community during his time there, of the notoriety for good that he had developed, and of the healing he had brought to so many.  Just as Jesus accompanied those who were suffering many felt the need to accompany Jesus in his time of suffering.  Goizueta builds his theology of accompaniment off of this idea of reciprocal love:

“To love Jesus of Nazareth is to physically walk with him on the way to Calvary, or to kiss his feet nailed to the cross; Jesus can no more be accompanied in the abstract than human beings can.  To sing to Mary is to sing to this particular Mary.  To accompany her is to walk beside her in the Posadas as she seeks a room for shelter.  To accompany la Soledad is to physically kneel beside her and feel her loneliness with her; it is to identify our sorrows with hers.”[1]

Love, therefore, is shown not only in praise and thanksgiving, but the accompaniment that occurs during times of suffering.  The prominence of place of Mary for Hispanic Catholics is notable in Goizueta’s theology.  Many feel more accompanied by her than they do by Jesus because of the love that she represents; the mercy that she shows towards the people is the same loving accompaniment that she showed towards Jesus on the road to Calvary.  Thus it is easy for Hispanics to identify themselves with the suffering Jesus while being comforted by Mary.  With Mary, many Hispanics feel bien acompañados.

This theology is then used as a model for how we are to accompany those who suffer in our society and how that very act of accompaniment is transformative.  “By definition, the act of accompaniment “suggests going with another on an equal basis” and, thus, implies the transgression of discriminatory barriers.  Only in and through the concrete act of accompaniment do we love others as “others,” as equals, and are we, in turn, loved by them.”[2]  The act of accompaniment entails crossing over boundaries and barriers to be right there, suffering with the suffering.  Goizueta also notes that accompaniment is the way that God comes to those who are suffering as well.  “An essential element of God’s own identification with the poor is, thus, the transgression of the spatial, geographical boundaries which separate rich and poor where they live.  The violation of these physical, geographical barriers is a virtually absolute precondition for loving the poor.”[3]  God inspires the rich to walk with the poor and in that act God’s love is shown towards all.

This act of accompaniment can be a dangerous one because it is (sadly) countercultural in a U.S. society that is highly individualistic and protective of boundaries.  Goizueta argues that Jesus, too, was persecuted for this very reason:

“[Jesus] was not crucified so much for what he did as for where he was; he “walked with” the wrong people and in the wrong places.  That was enough to get him beaten up, enough to get him crucified.  In Jesus’ world, everyone had his or her proper place.  Justice was defined as ensuring that every person stay in the place appropriate to him or her.  To accompany the poor and the outcasts was to transgress the established and accepted boundaries which separate “us” from “them.”  Consequently, by walking with the poor, by accompanying the outcasts, Jesus put himself in the “wrong” place, and he was crucified as a result.  He should have stayed in his proper place.  To walk with Jesus is thus to walk with the wrong persons in the wrong place.”[4]

To accompany the poor and suffering, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the cast out, the pariahs, is therefore to choose to step away from the good graces of a society that wants nothing to do with these people.  It is something that many Hispanics know how to do all too well.  “Latinos and Latinas know the crucial importance of transgressing borders and boundaries in order to walk with others; as exiles, we have experienced the destruction and dehumanization of the border – whether that of the Rio Grande or that of the Caribbean Sea… Abandoned in an alien land, we have known the cruelty and injustice of abandonment.  Thus, we have known the liberating power of acompañamiento, which transgresses boundaries.  Our mestizaje and exile are symbols of our identification with a Jesus who also transgressed boundaries.”[5]

Teenagers Serving A Meal To A ManAcompañamiento is indeed a liberating act, on both the people being accompanied and those who are accompanying.  “If we identify with the poor, if we “walk with the poor,” we will be transformed by the truth of that faith, not only as theologians but as Christians and human beings.  As theologians, we cannot truly love the poor unless we love the God whom the poor themselves love.  That God will transform and liberate us all – “if we will but walk together.”[6]  Gustavo Gutierrez notes that the poor have a potential to evangelize the Church and through accompaniment with them we will come to understand God’s love on a much deeper level.  “For the poor challenge the church constantly, summoning it to conversion; and many of the poor incarnate in their lives the evangelical values of solidarity, service, simplicity, and openness to accepting the gift of God.”[7]

Acompañamiento is the method that I have to guide my students with in order to try and effect a real transformation within them.  They are tasked to acompañar those in the community who are suffering from some form of abandonment and I am tasked to acompañar the students as they go through this transformative process.  But this is only one aspect.  Accompaniment in and of itself does generate change, but without reflection, theological or otherwise, that change may not take root.  This act of reflection is critical in order to move the students towards praxis; without praxis, accompaniment means little to nothing and the change that occurs is merely one of internal pity for the suffering.  Praxis is what will help to transform the situation of the suffering and it is towards praxis that I wish to aim my students.  To that end, the writing of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who did a lot to transform the situation of the poor in the countryside of Recife and other Brazilian cities, should add the necessary missing component that leads to praxis.

Join me next week where I will discuss Part III: Paolo Freire’s Conscientizaciòn.
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[1] Roberto Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), 196.

[2] Ibid, 206.

[3] Ibid, 201.

[4] Ibid, 203.

[5] Ibid, 204.

[6] Ibid, 210.

[7] Gustavo Gutierrez, Essential Writings, ed. James Nickoloff (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 113.