I just got back from my trip to San Diego for the 2014 International Marriage & Family Summit.  It was hosted by the American Association of Christian Counselors and I was one of the keynote speakers.   I gotta tell ya, it’s always hard to be one of the only people of color and one of the only female speakers, but I had a really good time and the response I received was so encouraging, I thought I’d share some of my message with you here.

I used the story of the woman at the well from John 4 as a backdrop to discuss some principles for counseling from a Christian perspective.  My hope was to give my audience some insight into how to be better people-helpers; how to counsel in a way that is relevant and meaningful for today’s culture.

Don’t be color-blind, gender-blind, anything-blind

In the story of the woman at the well, the very first thing the woman says to Jesus is, “you’re a Jew.”  She says, “You are a Jewish man.  And I am a Samaritan woman.”    Those parts of their identities are important.  They have significant meaning and context for this exchange.

It’s so important to remember that Jesus was not a neutral figure.  He didn’t exist in a vacuum.  He was a Jewish man.  He ate certain foods, his skin looked a certain way, his clothing likely represented his Jewish-ness and he dealt with all of the cultural implications and nuances of that.

As counselors, you cannot attempt to be color-blind or gender-blind or anything-blind.  When a person comes into your office, you should never ignore those aspects of their personhood.  It should, in fact, be one of the first things you notice.

You’re a woman.
You’re Latina.
Tell me more about your experience.

You’re a man.
You’re black.
You’re an immigrant.
Tell me more about your experience.

To ignore those vital parts of their identity would be an injustice.  A person’s race and gender shape their experience and their story so completely.  And contrary to popular belief, it is not the more Godly thing to be color-blind or gender-blind.  If you ignore that integral part of their story, you immediately send the message that you cannot possibly understand them.

Every person, every culture has something to offer

Jesus saw this immediately with the woman at the well.  He asked her for a drink.   By asking her for a drink, he affirmed that she had something to offer him.   In the same way, counselors should look for what the person in their office or on their couch has to offer.  How does their identity and their culture shape who they are?  And thus, what unique thing do they have to offer?

A counselor from the dominant culture (ie white) might look upon a Filipino family that lives with 9 people in a one-bedroom apartment and immediately say, “You are enmeshed.  You need to separate from your family and create more healthy boundaries.”    Without understanding the cultural factors and the Filipino identity that shapes this person, the counselor is likely to either (a) turn their client away due to misunderstanding or (b) make their client into someone who fits the dominant culture and thus sever those important ties to family culture and personal history and identity.

Imagine what it might look like if, instead, the counselor said,

“Wow.  What an amazingly strong family you have.  You can draw from that strength.”

“You are so fortunate to have a family that sacrifices for each other, that knows how to survive.  What resilience!”

Everybody has something to offer.    Find the strength first so that you can say, “You bring something to the table.  And we NEED that.”

Understand the social & cultural context

The woman at the well had been married 5 times.  Five times!  To our ears, that sounds like a woman who cannot be trusted, who might be unfaithful, who isn’t stable.  But we don’t understand the social and cultural context of her day.  In that day, women weren’t allowed to divorce men.  Men divorced women and all they had to do was walk out into the street and publicly declare their divorce for practically any reason at all – from lack of childbearing to poor cooking skills.

Jesus understood this larger social and cultural context.   This is not to say that the woman at the well was some sort of misunderstood saint, but Jesus understood that there were larger complexities brimming beneath the surface of her story.   And as agents of healing and change, counselors, too, have to understand the bigger picture.  What are the socioeconomic factors?  Familial factors?  Gender?  Race?  What parts of this person’s story are factoring in to their current situation?  What sorts of chronic stress need to be considered?    There is always more than meets the eye and the counselor’s job is to unpack those larger complexities and nuances of a person’s story.

Open Prison Doors, Set the Captives Free

You know that song I’ve got a River of Life Flowing Out of Me?

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me
Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see
Opens prison doors, sets the captives free
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me

It’s one of my all-time favorites and it’s what Jesus offers to the woman at the well and what every counselor should be offering to the people who walk through their doors.   Like Jesus showed the woman at the well, show your clients the resources that are inside of them.  Give them access.  Let your practice be a place where this is happening; where there is a river of life flowing.  Where the lame start to walk and the blind to see.

  • heidi husted armstrong

    Dr. Brenda – ALWAYS blessed by your teaching – thank you for sharing this online – and for sharing your immense gifts (in many white-ish & male-ish settings!) Every blessing, hha

  • Rosanne S.

    Words of wisdom beautifully shared by Dr. B. I appreciate your writing.

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  • Donna

    Dr. Brenda – think you for that truth. Not only applied in counseling but in all aspects of life. When we can appreciate and value other cultures we close bias gaps. We all have a story. I pray that we as Christian people will truly begin to have an ear to hear and follow the examples of our Lord and Savior Jesus.

  • As always, you speak with wisdom from above. Appreciate you so much, Dr. Brenda!

  • Rev. Emily Joye McGaughy-Reynolds

    Recognizing race and culture and gender is absolutely important. This is a great reminder for all of us in the field of ministry. Thank you so much. And I’m left heart hurt about the term “blind” which has been chosen to explain conditions of intentional non-recognition and willful ignorance. This is a negative rendition of “blind” in the context of the article. That is, blindness is used as the metaphor of what not to be. I’m mindful that this use might be hurtful to those who are actually blind and don’t experience their lack of visual sight as bad. I cannot speak for blind people, but as an able bodied Christian who seeks to be in right relationship with bodies that are different than my own, I want to at least ask us to think of synonyms that don’t shame disabled bodies while proving TOTALLY important points.

    In Christ,

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