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Sunday, April 27, 2008


Walking Together in New Orleans

Accompaniment. The word emerged early in our discussion at Central Baptist Church of what it would mean to become a partner in Churches Supporting Churches (CSC). Several terms had been suggested—friendship, mission, covenant, solidarity—but when someone said “accompaniment” we instinctively knew this was the word that would best describe our relationship with St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Our understanding of accompaniment is grounded in our long relationship with the people of El Salvador. In the mid-1980s, Central Baptist hosted a Salvadoran refugee as a part of the Sanctuary Movement. In the first few weeks that Mauricio lived in an apartment behind our worship commons, volunteers provided round-the-clock security by staying in the apartment with him. During our four-hour shifts, we learned to communicate with him in Spanish and sometimes taught him English; we watched television with him; we ate with him; and some volunteers slept overnight in a room that joined his apartment. We didn’t have any agenda; we were simply present in accompaniment.

Later some of us traveled to El Salvador with the SHARE Foundation(1) to visit refugees from the war that was raging between the FMLN and a Salvadoran military that was financed and trained by the U.S. Our task was to support these refugees by listening to their stories of torture and deprivation and then share the stories with faith groups in the United States in order to raise their consciousness about the consequences of U.S. policies in El Salvador. Later, when the refugees left the camps in Honduras for their villages in El Salvador, SHARE delegations physically accompanied them across the border, carrying their furniture, their chickens, and the building materials salvaged from their refugee housing. Ron Morgan, a member of Central Baptist, participated in several of these delegations.

“The war was still going on and the army didn’t want the refugees to go back to their homes,” Morgan says, “but they wanted to claim their own property.” North American volunteers accompanied them as they met with representatives of the United Nations Commission on Refugees and with Salvador government officials who finally allowed them to return to their villages. “They had been in the camps for eight or nine years and they wanted to be in places where, when the war was over, they would have a say in what happened.” Morgan says. “When the war did end, they were able to till their land because they were living on it.”

Morgan refers to this kind of accompaniment as walking alongside others. “You don’t go with any answers,” Morgan says. “You go to be present. If somebody there wants you to be a part of their solution, you offer to do this.” It is a practice that Central Baptist has continued in El Salvador for 24 years. (To learn more about Central Baptist's relationships and experiences in El Salvador, visit

Rev. Scott Hutchinson, pastor of the CSC partner congregation, St. Andrews United Church of Christ in Perkasie, PA, participated in a similar form of accompaniment in El Salvador. A former member of Witness for Peace in Nicaragua, he was searching for a way to connect with faith communities in El Salvador when he was invited to work with the Baptist Association in El Salvador (Asociacion Bautista de El Salvador). On his first full day in the country he was traveling to a resettled area to meet with refugees when his group was stopped by the military, held at gunpoint, and menaced. “I remember thinking that any sense of revolutionary tourism I might have had was over right then,” Hutchinson says. But his second thought was, “Some Salvadorans face this kind of harassment every day.”

Hutchinson’s insight came from the simple act of walking alongside others. He describes it as a kind of immersion, a term that was echoed by a Salvadoran friend to whom he related the experience. “So you were baptized,” the Baptist friend said.

By walking with the Salvadoran people, Hutchinson was able to join them in finding ways to respond to the terror they were experiencing. One of these responses was the creation of the Urgent Action Network that bombarded the U.S. Embassy with telegrams when someone they knew was arrested or “disappeared.”(2)

For Hutchinson, accompaniment was a life-changing experience. “The illusion of self reliance and autonomy was stripped away,” he says. “I read and heard the Scriptures differently. I could never completely return to life as I had known it.”

This kind of transformation is one of the rewards of accompaniment, Hutchinson believes. You can really understand others when you walk in their shoes, he says, and this is true for the people with whom you are walking, as well. He describes a Salvadoran who learned something about North Americans from his encounter with him. “It must really be hard to be a Christian in the United States,” the Salvadoran said. “Here our situation is very unjust but our choices are very clear. Where you live, the decisions are much less clear.”

Being present, sharing stories, walking together, being part of someone else’s solution, transformation, mutuality—these are all a part of the term “accompaniment” as we have come to understand it. But how does it relate to our experience as partners in Churches Supporting Churches?

At a recent meeting of our CSC task force, we tried to spell this out. “You can’t assume you know what’s needed,” James Craig suggested, “and this sometimes leads you in new directions.” He recalled the meeting in which Rev. Don Boutté, pastor of our partner church, St. John Baptist, identified priorities for our work together. One of his needs was help with trauma counseling. Craig, a social worker who is employed by a medical insurance company, researched this and was able to direct Boutté to a series of free workshops. Sandy Bauer, a professor of social work, also worked on this objective by compiling a list of agencies in the St. John Baptist neighborhood and by assigning her students to compile bibliographies on trauma.

Bauer also suggested another aspect of accompaniment. “It’s communicating, not just doing,” she said. Some people expected us to send a work group to build houses as soon as we joined CSC, she recalled. It was hard for them to understand the importance of communication in building a relationship that serves as a foundation for working together on physical projects.

Ginny Leonard suggested that the term implies respect based on an understanding and acceptance of differences. She recalled a family situation in which she and her husband became much more comfortable with two of their relatives after they had visited in their home and walked in their shoes.

To Stephanie Powell, accompaniment is something like the relationship one has with your friends. “You can’t do your friends’ work for them but you can walk with them as they do it,” she said. Those who got to know Rev. Clifford Jones, assistant pastor of St. John Baptist, at the Baptist Peace Conference affirmed the value of this kind of accompaniment.

In many ways, we are able to define what accompaniment can mean but we are still struggling to apply the term to our work with Churches Supporting Churches. We have had to learn, for example, how to be patient as we work through priorities and procedures with our partner church. We have had to discover how best to communicate: how to use email effectively but not excessively; how to sense when such personal communication as conference calls and visits is helpful; how to communicate economically among our task force and church by establishing a blog. We have had to learn how to relate to a network of area churches that are also partnered with St. John Baptist, accompanying them in our common mission.

This learning experience has been rewarding. We have been amazed at the resources we have been able to uncover when we have become aware of a need to which we can respond. We have marveled at the number of people who have offered their skills, time, and money to a mission they have come to understand and embrace. And we have been awed and humbled by the people of New Orleans whose faith offers hope where others see only despair.

The term “accompaniment” has taken on a new significance for us as we use it in a new context and we are still discovering the full implications of this. But, for us, it seems to be the best way to respond to our mission in Churches Supporting Churches.

--Jan Corbett

1 The SHARE Foundation is an international non-profit organization that accompanies poor communities in El Salvador as they work for economic justice, democracy and sustainable development alternatives at the local and national levels.

2 The disappeared were not those who voluntarily left their communities but those who were physically removed by the military and later found murdered. If there was an attempt to rescue them within 24 hours, they were often saved.

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