“Why I Am a Social Worker” by Diana S. Richmond Garland

reviewed by Heidi Unruh

why“I truly believe that every fiber of my being is a social worker. It’s what God created me for,” attests Allison Porter, who helps hospital patients and their families. “By my actions and my acceptance and my caring and my support, I can show what Christ is like.”

This sense of deep satisfaction in their profession radiates from the stories of Christian social workers that provide the substance of this book. Though diverse in their job descriptions and demographics, those profiled share a view of social work “not just as their occupation, but also as an opportunity to live out their Christian beliefs and commitments.” Their personal histories have found meaning in partnership with God’s larger story of redemption.

Diana Garland, founding dean of Baylor University’s School of Social Work, initially planned this book as an introduction to the range of professional options for Christians in social work. But then the stories took over. The book became an exploration of social workers’ life journeys, charting the paths that led them to this occupation and sustain them through its many challenges. Based on in-depth interviews, the 25 profiles are organized by fields of practice (e.g., children and adolescents, mental health, criminal justice), and are framed by helpful reflections in the introductory and concluding chapters. Each story is followed by questions designed to help other social workers interact with the text.

From this narrative approach, the theme of “calling” emerges as the intersection of faith, work and life purpose. Though this term is typically associated with the origin stories of pastors and missionaries, many of those interviewed also describe being spiritually called or drawn into social work. Often this awareness came only in retrospect, as they looked back to trace God’s hand in their career choices. These narratives encourage readers to reflect on the relationship between faith and vocation. Do we have a calling or merely a job? How does following Jesus motivate and guide our daily work?

Garland observes that social workers’ spiritual drive did not correlate with whether their organizational setting was a public agency, a secular nonprofit or a religiously affiliated organization. Faith may be vital to social workers regardless of the context in which they serve. “Faith as a motivation for serving is a different matter, of course, than religion and faith being an actual focus in the work with clients.” This distinction adds important nuance to public policy discussions about government partnerships with faith-based nonprofits.

The social work profession has often regarded religion with suspicion or outright hostility. Thanks in part to the thoughtful leadership of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (which published this book), Christians have been navigating ways to integrate faithful spirituality and ethical, professional practice. This book highlights how social workers support clients in drawing on the resources of faith, such as by praying with a family after the death of a child, in response to a parent’s request. At the same time, social workers honor the professional values of self-determination and respect by providing quality care to all people without judging their beliefs or choices. Their faith calls them into social work—but not for the explicit purpose of imparting their faith to others. As Garland puts it, “Their care is a louder message than their words.”

The profiles suggest that faith helps to balance serving individuals and working toward systemic change. Jesus’ example inspires social workers to integrate personal compassion with macro-level concerns of social justice and community development. Faith also guides social workers to accept the limitations of their ability to bring about change while holding onto the belief that God can work through them to redeem any situation. Christian social workers are agents of open-eyed hope.

For current or prospective social workers, this book will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the profession. Regardless of vocation, readers will find inspiration in these stories of people who have given their lives to Jesus’ call to serve those who are wounded and marginalized.

I approached my review of Why I Am a Social Worker: 25 Christians Tell Their Life Stories as a tribute to Diana Garland, whose death last year from cancer has left a hole in the profession and in many hearts.  But as befits a career that so graciously merged excellence with humility, Garland’s final book passes the tribute on to all who have embraced the calling that she loved. She closes the book by praying for “my brothers and sisters in this caravan seeking God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven: … [God,] Give us courage to go, step by step, with one another and with you.”

Heidi Unruh is a consultant, writer and trainer equipping churches and nonprofits for effective, holistic community outreach. Her books include Churches That Make a Difference and Hope for Children in Poverty.

 

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