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Figuring out the ‘why’

Col Geannette Seymour
spoke to Colonel Geanette Seymour, a retired Salvation Army officer who has taken up a six-month appointment as assistant national secretary for mission.

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e-connect: What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing marginalised and disadvantaged Australians?

Colonel Geanette Seymour: Isolation, disempowerment, and a sense of loss of hope.

You went straight to the meta-narrative: what of the practical realities of homelessness, entrenched poverty, abuse, addiction, under-and unemployment etc.? What of single parents trying to survive on $14 and change each day after they’ve paid for accommodation? What’s The Salvation Army’s response when we’re faced with the huge disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’? 
GS: We are pragmatic; we say ‘here’s the issue’, or ‘What is the issue?’ But the problem is if we stop there. If, for example, I provide a homeless single mother or father and children with accommodation for a week or a month then I have done a good thing, but I haven’t resolved the issue.

It’s actually the whole, big picture we called to address: the immediate response – the presenting need, if you like – and then, ‘What are the issues here?’… you can make assumptions, on fairly strong, collected data. But until we’ve actually engaged with the individual we don’t know what the underlying issues are. The presenting issue may be homelessness, but the real issue may be unemployment or abuse. The real issue might be health, or the underlying issue might be a lack of ability to read and write, therefore there’s an inability to be job-ready, therefore there’s no income… so it goes on.

Mixed in with that could be the loss of hope. That could end up in either addiction of some description, or the misuse of a substance, alcohol or drugs, or some form of pain alleviation, which could be self-harm; or the underlying factor could be depression, or whatever. It’s about engaging with the individual, to find out both the presenting issue and the underlying issues.  How do we intervene and stop inter-generational poverty? These words are easy to bandy around, but there has to be a point where we intervene, and say, ‘This will not go on’ – how do we make that happen for an individual?

Moving beyond the presenting issue…
GS: Exactly.

How do you think we will tackle any methodological, theological and philosophical differences between the two Salvation Army territories; how do you think we should do so?

GS: Together, with grace and mercy; remembering that we are all part of the whole and each part has value and worth and influence. May God use us to create something of worth and value that pleases Him.

I recognise St Paul’s analogy of the Body of Christ. The Salvation Army is often portrayed as the ‘hands’.

GS: I think the Army does get described in that way. I hope it is an accurate reflection. But I also hope that we never get to the point where we think we can do it on our own. It’s about internal and external partnerships, and the ‘why’ we do what we do, as well as the ‘how’ that we do it. The Salvation Army never has a problem figuring out the ‘what’ – there’s always plenty of ‘what’. We can stand on the street corner and figure out the ‘what’.

The bigger issue is the ‘why’ –Why is that The Salvation Army’s task? I can go for the meta-data and I can go for the big picture, and also I have to be systemic and strategic. In real terms, we have limited resources. So, where can we apply them to achieve the nest outcomes? And who are going to be my partners, in the applying of that? What is it that I want to achieve, and also importantly, how am I going to go about that? 

There’s a strange anomaly here. I think it is possible to do some good stuff. But are we doing it the way that Christ would have it done? For Christ, it was always about relationship: about living ‘with’, talking ‘with’, and being ‘with’ people.   Letting them tell it like it was, for them, and then Jesus would respond, interacting with them. I think it’s the ‘with’, not the ‘for’, that bring about real change.