Navigating a complicated world

April 25, 2012 | Young Voices
Stephanie Coughlan Ens | Special to Young Voices

As a recent graduate of the University of Manitoba with a degree in social work, I consider myself to be quite lucky with the type of employment I’ve landed. I received a job offer straight from my practicum as a “community development social worker” for a non-profit co-op agency in Winnipeg.

It was everything I could have hoped for: working mostly with youth, but also with families, program development and implementation, individual and group counselling, and consultation with a multidisciplinary team. Plus, the agency stands for much of what I believe in, and my co-workers are friendly, warm, welcoming and funky people.

I never stopped to consider how my upbringing in a small town Manitoba Mennonite church, or how my faith in Jesus, would come into play at my workplace. Now, after a year of being employed at the same agency, I am starting to realize that my faith has influenced my work and also that my work has influenced my faith.

My faith community has taught me that everyone deserves unconditional love because everyone is created by God. Through my work in running an after-school youth centre, though, I have realized that respect for, and commitment to, other’s safety, and the right to have fun, are conditions that individuals must meet. But I can still show unconditional love to those who are hardest to love.

There is one boy who often attends, who will barge in, take the time to point out who has lice and who has bedbugs, make fun of someone’s flaws, and then usually get into a physical fight with another boy. He is not meeting the conditions of the youth centre and it would be so easy to ask him not to return, but, instead, we have chosen unconditional regard, recognizing his inherent worth as a human being, and have decided to work on a one-to-one level with him and his family.

Society screams at me to have a good job, nice clothes, money to spend, and to always upgrade lest I be left behind. I am thankful that my faith has enabled me to dull these messages with reminders to be generous and humble.

In my work, I have seen poor people struggle to keep up with these societal pressures. Some of them are overworked, others are addicted to substances. Others give up, but many of them have hope. Funders want us to respond by teaching them “employable skills” and offering them employment options. I have often learned that the better response is to listen to their story, knowing that money does not equal happiness, and draw out their hopes and dreams.

Jesus taught us to “love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In my own faith journey I have embraced this, but often only focused on the first part—“love your neighbour”—and neglected the “as you love yourself” ending. My work has forced me to realize that if I cannot accept my whole self—my strengths and weaknesses—I can never fully accept others either. I thought that faithful living meant sacrificing my own self-care, but now I am starting to understand that having compassion for myself, knowing that God lives in me, is a big part of what Jesus is asking us all to do.

In closing I would like to share I John 4:17 from The Message: “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry.”

As I navigate this complicated world in a career that is as fulfilling as it is terrifying, I try to keep this in mind for myself and for the people I serve.

Stephanie Coughlan Ens attends Springstein Mennonite Church, Man. She graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Manitoba in May 2011.

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