As we prepare for Justice GA in Phoenix, Unitarian Universalists need to attend to how we engage as partners with those whose lives are most impacted by the social and legal effects of U.S. policy, law, and attitudes regarding migrants. This week, Janice Marie Johnson, UUA Multicultural Growth Director, offers her reflection on partnership.-Ed.

The Latin American Theology of Accompaniment offers an important glimpse into the spiritual practice of being in partnership. I first heard this term just a couple of days ago when I participated in worship led by Rev. Jackie Clements at Finding Our Way Home 2012, the annual gathering for religious professionals of color.

We learned that the idea of accompaniment was put forth by Roberto S. Goizueta in the book Caminemos con Jesus: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1995). We considered how the verb ‘acompañar’ in Spanish is different in complexity, texture and weight from the verb ‘to accompany’ in English which can be used to refer to going to the grocery store with someone. At our retreat someone said, “’it’s like being joined at the hip.”

Fr. Kurt Messick notes that the Theology of Accompaniment

has many implications, including a recognition of the value of human beings regardless of gender …  as well as a recognition of the importance of theological themes all through life: in the home, in the workplace, in the social arena. It is our task, regardless of our starting point, to walk with, or accompany, these people. To walk with the poor does not simply mean a geographic relocation. It means becoming intensely aware of their conditions — body, mind, spirit, hope, future — and how these things differ from mainstream Western culture. It also has a call to the development of interior life, as a means of strengthening the identity of those from whom culture often robs or ignores.

Dominican Jim Barnett, O.P. speaks and writes about what such a theology looks like in practice.

When I think of “partnership,” I think of Puente Arizona, part of the global movement for migrant justice and human rights promoting justice, non-violence, interdependence and human dignity. Puente Arizona works to empower the community and build bridges by working collaboratively with various organizations and individuals. This organization  has institutionalized a profound understanding of the difference between providing services to the disenfranchised and breaking bread with siblings along life’s journeys.

UU President Peter Morales reminds us that

one of the great challenges for our congregations is to learn to express our core values of compassion, spiritual depth, freedom, justice and peace in new ways. This is much more than an organizational need. This is about living fully in relationship with our neighbors.

I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen (Playa), Mexico, taking a one-week intensive, interactive course in beginner’s Spanish. I was inspired to jump-start my Spanish to help prepare myself spiritually, psychologically, culturally, and theologically to be fully present at Justice GA.

What I received in those few days was far greater than an extraordinary week at Soléxico: Language and Culture Centers. In addition to being at ease as  I begin to communicate in Spanish, I received many unexpected gifts. I learned much about the intersection of the Mayan and Caribbean cultures; ate wonderful seafood; attended Spanish cooking class and made guacamole and Mexican salad from scratch; learned about cenotes (grottoes) and visited an extraordinary one; was introduced to Choc-Mool, the Mayan rain god; and so forth.

Nuances of culture informed the experience. Playa recognizes, values, and promotes the contributions of the diverse cultural heritages and ancestries of all of its peoples. Partnership requires us to learn, time and time again, to best enter into another’s multicultural sphere.

The Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley offered words that speak to how we may best enter into another’s multicultural sphere:

Our first task in approaching another people,

another culture is to take off our shoes,

for the place we are approaching is holy.

Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream.

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

The spiritual practice of being in partnership calls each of us into account to move beyond “othering,” beyond tolerating, beyond embracing. It calls us to honor our siblings as the unique and precious beings that each of us is – in spite of class, race, ethnicity, ability, and all else that would divide us.

Accompaniment is a choice. I plan to better embrace and embody this thought-provoking theology. It resonates profoundly with me as the spiritual practice of being in partnership. Please join me.

Janice Marie Johnson, Multicultural Growth Director, is part of the UUA Multicultural Growth and Witness Staff Group.

About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.


  1. Kelly Dignan

    Thank you for providing this theological underpinning for our social change work, Janice! You have offered a framework that describes what the UU Church of Boulder Immigration Ministry has been doing without really knowing it. We have posted in the past about some of the work we’re doing, but here is an update since then as it relates to your post.

    The group is a learning community grounded in the ethic of restoring right relationship. We developed relationships with three local coalition partners in the Boulder area who serve undocumented immigrants. Through them, we met three immigrant families whom we have accompanied through difficult and joyful times. Our message to these companions is:
    One of our Unitarian Universalist values is that all people are sacred and worthy of respect. This country’s current immigration system results in inhumane treatment of human beings, and because of our religious values, we disagree with it. We want to change the system, and we want to follow immigrants’ voices so we can know how best to change it. Instead of acting for immigrants, we want to speak and act with immigrants. Even before the immigration laws change, we want to companion immigrants in their lives, and in this companioning, we seek to transform ourselves so that we can help transform the world.

    In effect, we are trying to do what you write about here – a spiritual practice of partnering.

    One family was torn apart when the father was deported just before Christmas. We helped the mother apply for work permits and passports, and she and her children have joined us at monthly vigils at the ICE detention center. Another family was expecting a baby, and we held a baby shower for them and accompanied them during their journey to obtain a drivers’ license and work permit. Another needed to have surgery, and we helped her raise the co-pay and accompanied her before and after surgery.

    During all of this, we used guidelines for companioning which I developed using pastoral care guidelines. The Theology of Accompaniment is an event better guide because it has theological emphasis.

    Ministry Group members do the accompanying and then return to the group for shared spiritual practice with the intention to center ourselves, connect us to the something larger than ourselves, and increase our compassion. Then we conduct theological reflection on the experiences and discuss how we are transformed emotionally and spiritually by these experiences. Next we incorporate new learning and strategies for improving the way in which we companion.

    Our experience has been as Fr. Kurt Messick described: we have become intensely aware of our companions’ conditions — body, mind, spirit, hope, future — and how these things differ from mainstream Western culture. It also has called us to the development of our interior lives, as a means of strengthening the identity of those from whom culture often robs or ignores.

    Kelly Dignan
    Ministerial Intern
    Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder


Comments are closed.