Solidarity is a demanding spiritual practice

You know, of course, what solidarity means, don't you? Or do you? In our time when humanity is pushed and pulled through a vast wilderness, when refugees are massively scorned, when parents cannot protect children against violence and hunger, and when riches are hoarded as if life and salvation depend on extraordinary accumulation, it seems an apt season to re-examine solidarity.

Recently I conducted training in Chile on justice themes for a group of staff who work in social service programs sponsored by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They worked with the concept of solidarity in such a reflective way that I was challenged to deepen my own thinking about it.

I commented that solidarity is not primarily a feeling; it is relationship and action. So much is presented in the media that evokes genuine feelings which then seem to quickly fade to indifference or a sense of helplessness. Feelings well up when hearing or seeing news accounts of Syrian refugees, migrants dying in the Mediterranean, reports of human trafficking, or persons battered by natural or human-made disasters, and homelessness on our own streets. So much suffering is brought close through communication; we often have terrible feelings of sadness, indignation, or yearning. Yet I am aware that my own sense of solidarity is so fleeting as to be an illusion.

The group in Chile discussed solidarity with energy and inquisitiveness. One participant commented that she was totally turned around as she and her peers explored the topic. She always had thought of solidarity as a feeling. Disabused of this notion, she began to question her thinking. She was puzzled by the fact that the Polish labor union movement had been called "solidarity." Now she understood with new significance the connection of solidarity to a movement of action and change. She and her group began to realize that solidarity demands more than emotion.

Their exploration stimulated my own search for a deeper understanding of solidarity as a practice within Gospel living. I wondered, "What does it demand of me? What is the dynamic of solidarity that actually eases the suffering of another, brings healing, or betters conditions?"

Solidarity requires entering into the experience of another. Within the struggles or suffering of another, it implies a bond that moves to action.

When I think of Syria or the ongoing tragedy of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, I realize that to be in solidarity I need to do something, even if small, that situates me closer to their reality and draws me away from my own insulated life.

I can consider offering a monetary donation or be politically active to press my government to accept more refugees. I can inform myself of viewpoints of all the factions in Middle East violence or search for Syrian literature to read. All such actions are good. Still, for me, the full dimension of solidarity is lacking: To be with another's suffering includes sharing something of their hardship or risk.

I must admit that I rarely take real risks. I recall a peace march after the 9-11 attacks in the United States. Uncharacteristically, I was ill at ease in a public peace march and, in fact, was spat upon by onlookers — a tiny share of the discomfort of those working or living inside war zones. Solidarity requires continual openness to bear this kind of pain. It brings about a deepening of relationships based on common experiences with my brother or sister.

Regarding migrants or refuges, actions such as visiting migrants in a nearby detention center, listening or being a channel of communication with their families would draw me into personal relationships. Attending an interfaith service with Muslims could bring me into conversation with and understanding (or discomfort) of others' experiences. These types of relational actions, with all the attendant complexities and questions, are required by solidarity. Not simply good works but entering into discomfort in order to extend my relationship toward what I have not yet known. A selfless sharing with another who I do not know (and may never meet) is the essence. It can become part of my daily routine by speaking to homeless persons on my pathway and giving food that is a result of my own fasting, not my excess. Would it be a risk for me to walk along with a Pride (LGBT) celebration parade?

Solidarity, then, is entering into relationship. Like any relationship of depth, it calls for new perspectives and willingness to change. I find this personally demanding and challenging. As I reach, through small practices, toward another's reality I find that my energy turns outward and seems to be strengthened, even when confronting disturbing realities.

When I seek unity with the "other," as my heart opens toward other, it becomes an endless circle that, in my personal identification with the other's distress, impels me to strive beyond personal interconnectedness and to work for changes in social realities that impede human dignity. Solidarity then is an endless meeting of self, of other, and of transformative activity.

The entwined mystery of spirit and incarnation are alive. Yes, solidarity is not an easy slogan but a demanding practice.

I have been engaged over the years in anti-trafficking policy work but rarely have I been involved in direct service with persons who had been trafficked. My heart was full of feeling and my work was involved in action, but where was the relationship, the burden sharing?

Prayer is a space where we can come into relationship even when we're not physically present to another. It can be an opportunity for real solidarity but that does not happen when I am praying for another person, no matter how deep my concern for their welfare or how heartfelt my plea to God for mercy and comfort. It happens only when I find a way of praying with the other — bringing the reality of the other acutely to my consciousness so that it is as if I were the other person praying, or as if it were the other person praying through me. I actually become, in a deep spiritual realm, the other.

Prayer is a relationship, even if I enter it timidly and momentarily, that includes the demand for change and constancy. I may need to change the location of my prayer to places where my spirit encounters the other in new ways; where I can better undergo spiritual experiences of grief and powerlessness, hungers and hatreds, humanity and heartlessness. Can I befriend such experiences? They are the spaces in which I am able to practice solidarity — to touch our shared humanity, lay bare my own soul to deep mystery and seek to live with a consciousness of gospel.

For even as I encounter this "other" in solidarity, I discover the other — that divine illumination of our universe, from whom generosity and unity flow.

My search is in infancy. But I am confident it will expand, just as I am sure that my Chilean colleagues together, day-in and day-out, continue to be turned around through their search for and practice of solidarity.

[Clare Nolan is the International Justice Training Coordinator for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an international woman's religious congregation that is involved in providing social services in about 70 counties, with a particular focus on women and girls in vulnerable situations.]