A change has taken place at Shalem.
As Mark was preparing for retirement and the Board had interviewed and selected Jennifer to move into the role of Executive Director, there was a decision to pause the search for a new Clinical Director. I was asked to step into that pause. My name is Sharon Ramsay and since November 9, 2020 I have been in the role as Interim Clinical Director at Shalem.
I have stepped in for the short term: my contract ends on April 9, 2021. These six months are envisioned as a time with some existing practices in place and to suggest some new ways of continuing and expanding the impact of Shalem’s clinical services. This change also occurs within the broader changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, this invisible yet tangible virus that has disrupted the ways in which we live our lives. How can I step into this role, knowing that my window is limited, and any changes will come into effect long after I have left? Well, I lean on an ancient idea: bearing witness.
Bearing witness prioritizes the experience of the person/group over the questions the listener might have. To bear witness is to see, hear, know and remember what has happened. As the Interim Clinical Director, I am bearing witness to the competence of the clinical team, and the privilege to support members of the greater Hamilton community. At Shalem, through the virtual window of zoom encounters, I connect with staff to consider together how we can each see and hear what is happening around us such that our attention is a catalyst for change.
Working virtually – whether by telephone or onscreen – calls for an increased level of attention. Is the sound clear? Is the camera on? How many reminders are needed to turn the microphone on? On a weekly basis we are discussing the felt effects of the pandemic both in terms of the concerns that clients bring to session and our own lived experience of tiredness, restlessness, and the relief of a few gulps of fresh air, of sunshine and the glittering brilliance of snow. This experience of change requires us to consider what are the necessary rhythms of life that contribute to being seen and heard and ensure that as an organization we continue to effectively and compassionately connect with the people who seek our services.
However, my stepping into the pause is not simply about guiding the clinical ship.
I have also been asked to use this sojourn at Shalem to speak into the process of anti-racist reflection in which the organization is involved. The goal of this kind of attunement is to bear witness to the experiences of others AND by doing so take concrete steps to develop knowledge about cultures, power dynamics, societal structures that influence the ways that individuals, couples and families navigate life.
One of the ongoing stories that came to prominence in 2020 was systemic racism. For some, the revelations from social and mainstream media were shocking. For others, it was an exhausting reminder of longstanding experiences of inequity, injustice and exclusion. As Canadians, we also encounter these stories in reports of the lives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples, accounts of fatal interactions between the police and the public, protests in the streets demanding justice, etc. There are stories from the distant and recent past that are resurfacing, and those events tell us something about the human condition. Given the sheer number of reports, tweets, blogs, and the like, we can find ourselves unmoved, uninterested, immobilized or activated in response.
Consider a New Testament example. In John chapter 9 the disciples encounter a man born blind and ask Jesus, “Who sinned to cause this man to be blind? Was it him or his parents?” Perhaps they were trying to out Jesus Jesus, having seen him get to the core of the matter with others he had encountered in no time flat. However, Jesus was focused on an entirely different agenda. His position of openness allowed him to step back from a narrow focus and declare that blindness was not the issue at hand but rather in that particular moment, the opportunity for the glory of God to be on display in that man’s life was right now. To bear witness is to be open.
What is the now of our day? I suggest it is to dig deeper into the call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. I hope that I can encourage this community of helpers to further lean in to acts of compassion, wisdom, and openness with one another and the members of the community so that we reflect the truth that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Sharon Y. Ramsay, MDiv, RP, RMFT-SM, CCFT, is Shalem’s Interim Clinical Director