Empowerment | A Year’s Meditation on Asha Values
April 5, 2019
by Steve Watson
In February, I spent time as a pastor with two people who seemed to have very little power. One was an inmate in the custody of ICE, waiting for months to see whether or not he’d be deported. He is living under armed guard in a prison with no real say or insight into anything about his future. The other was a poor mother raising her family in a done-room home nestled against a busy freight line in the slums of Delhi, India. Both were poor, in many ways trapped by circumstance and discarded by society, and both seemed in many ways powerless.
These visits stirred many things in my mind and spirit, as you can imagine, and have evoked much prayer, further advocacy, and many thoughts. But one thing I noticed is that each of these individuals still had tremendous power they were exercising in the world. They had the power to keep surviving, to do the next thing that will make their or their children’s lives more likely to flourish tomorrow. They had power they were exercising over their hearts and mindset, whether they would live in despair, or as one put it, “with hate and anger in my heart,” or with hope. Both individuals moved me to see that to be alive is always to have power.
Over the past three years, one of the most powerful forces of inspiration in my life has been the work of an Indian NGO called Asha. Over thirty years ago, my friend Dr. Kiran Martin, recently graduated from medical school in Delhi, heard of a cholera epidemic in her city’s slum communities. It was devastating, but not unusual news, emanating from the poorest, least privileged corners of her city. But rather than saying a prayer, sending a check, or doing nothing, Dr. Martin set up a small cholera clinic in one slum neighborhood. As she stayed, she continued to take step after step to serve and empower her new friends. The work expanded beyond health clinics to public health, women’s and children’s empowerment, economic development, and higher education access. Asha is now transforming the lives of over 700,000 residents of nearly one hundred slum communities in around Delhi.
Through my family’s and my church’s partnership with Asha’s US-based advocacy organization, I have seen first hand the amazing results of Asha’s work and the deep interpersonal and spiritual values by which it is conducted. More than anyone else right now, Asha is pushing me (I hope!) to be a better human being – less focused on consumption and material wealth, and more on relational and spiritual wealth.
In 2019, I am letting Asha’s values guide my daily meditation and prayers. Each month, I meditate daily on one of Asha’s ten values. Today I share a few reflections on the second, my February’s reflection on empowerment.
Asha defines empowerment as “the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desire actions and outcomes. Empowerment enables the true potential of every individual to be unleashed for the benefit of communities and our world.”
As I meditated each day in February on empowerment, two things struck me again again – one is that we are never 100% stuck. We all, myself included, always have power. We have choices. Time and again in February, I noticed ways I would normally feel constrained or trapped by my constraints or circumstances, in ways small or large. Unlike my friend in custody, I do not live behind bars. And unlike the woman I met in Delhi’s slums, I do not face the oppressive limitations of severe poverty. To compare my tendency to feel or act unempowered with their circumstances would be to trivialize their suffering. And yet, even in my privileged, empowered life, I shrink back from offering myself for others good so much. I don’t follow through on choices I could make which would lead to good outcomes for myself, my family, and the world. This month, I noticed this more, and prayed that God will help be empowered, would give me the power to offer all I am and have for the benefit of communities and our world.
This Lent, my friend and colleague wrote a blog about prayer and agency. In it, he acknowledged that unhealthy communities and systems, and sometimes especially unhealthy religious communities strip us of agency. They can teach us not to trust our will or voices, develop fear of our own agency in the world. While our own desires aren’t always healthy or ideal, they’re worth noticing and cultivating. And while our choices can be destructive or wasteful, not always healthy and helpful, the problem isn’t our power or agency – it’s that power not guided toward our own or anyone else’s flourishing.
The second thing that struck me is how beautiful it is to empower others. Whether as a boss or a coworker or a parent, there are small risks I experience when empowering someone else. What if I don’t like the choices they make or the way they do something that I might have done myself? What if I give away influence or attention that I want to keep? My desire to hold power and attention is painful for me to see in myself or admit, but I feel it sometimes.
And yet, each time last month I made an active choice to empower someone I live or work with, I was glad I did it, whether or not I enjoyed the exact choices the other person made with their power. To see others around me have their potential unleashed for the benefit of communities and our world is to see their joy and flourishing and to see the world receive gifts from their voice and leadership and experience that no one else had available to give.
Here’s to a life of cultivating our own power and voice, for the flourishing of communities and the world. And here’s to a life of empowering others, particularly when we’ve had privilege and attention plenty in our lives, and watching new voices and new leaders work wonders among us!