Agency: No One Told Us It Was Impossible, So We Went Ahead and Did It
To me, at first hearing, the word “agency” has a connotation of freedom, of having multiple options. I suppose the sports fan in me goes to the phrase “free agency,” in which a pro athlete gets to sell his services to the team with the highest bid.
But in the Leading Causes of Life framework, agency means power as well as freedom. Agency is faith in action. It is a confidence that our inputs into the universe make a difference. Agency is the conviction that, to quote Alan Rice, if we are called to mission, the resources will follow.
Here is a familiar example of agency: Habitat for Humanity builds houses for low-income Americans who could not otherwise achieve home ownership. It utilizes volunteer labor and donated or salvaged materials. It welcomes the gifts of folks who may barely know how to swing a hammer, but can perform the support tasks needed to enable the carpenters, plumbers, etc., to complete their work. Habitat typically requires its client families to make interest-free mortgage payments, and invest “sweat equity,” both of which help power future Habitat building projects. This policy helps sustain Habitat and makes the owners of Habitat houses active partners, not passive recipients.
Agency means refusing to be a victim, refusing to be limited by a label given by another: elderly, poor, disabled, at-risk.
Gary Gunderson likes to cite an example of agency drawn from his public health work overseas. In the 1990s, relief organizations were quaking in fear of the tidal wave of orphans that they knew would result from the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Twenty million children were expected to be left without parents because of the disease. Yet there was no budget for orphanages, no training for volunteers, no office buildings or staff or bureaucratic procedures in place. How would poor African countries have the resources to absorb these orphans?
To the wonder of Western observers, the problem seemed largely to solve itself, without their direction. Communities found the resources to care for their own: to nurse the dying and nurture the survivors. No one told them the challenge was impossible, so they went ahead and did it. There is a social cost from Africa's wave of AIDS orphans, but not the huge calamity that UNICEF and others feared.
Perhaps the best example of agency is the Gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand with two fishes and five loaves. Simon Peter said it was impossible, but Jesus ignored him and went ahead and did it.
Examples of agency abound in our communities -- of churches finding innovative ways to lift up those in need. Of individuals rising above labels and expectations and harnessing the power available to them. We all benefit from these stories. What examples can you share?
John James, M.A.
Clergy Health Initiative