Occasionally someone asks me, “How did you get involved in policy work?” Most often, my response is, “When you work with children and parents who live in low-income communities and experience racism and discrimination on a daily basis, you get to advocacy very quickly.” But, it was a Bible story that helped me see my professional advocacy through the lens of my personal faith.
Matthew 15:21-28 tells the story of a desperate mother who interrupted Jesus’ retreat to Tyre and Sidon and asked him to heal her critically ill daughter. A Canaanite woman was a foreigner, and she was alone—unaccompanied by a husband or a father. She was probably poor, perhaps a single mother. By the standards of her day, she crossed cultural and gender boundaries to get to Jesus.
She was probably pretty uncomfortable, but, even so, she demonstrated great courage. At a time when women did not speak to men outside of their homes and families, this woman was bold. She spoke to Jesus “in a loud voice” because she recognized that Jesus had the power to heal her child.
Uncharacteristically, Jesus was not quick to respond to the woman’s plea. Instead, he ignored her, and she turned to the disciples for help. They, in turn, asked Jesus to “send her away,” but she refused to leave quietly.
An argument ensued, and Jesus made it clear that he did not come for people like her. “I came only for the house of Israel,” he said and then spoke harshly to her when she argued that her daughter had the right to be whole and well.
He insulted her by saying that it was not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs. “Dog” was a derogatory term that Jews of that time used for Canaanite persons. But the woman held on to her conviction that Jesus could help. “Yes Lord, but even the dogs gather the crumbs under the master’s table.” She convinced Jesus to change his mind.
This nameless Canaanite woman stands as a testament to the power of advocacy. Her story challenges me when I feel the work is too difficult and sustains me when I feel inadequate to the task. She recognized the power of Jesus, and she challenged that power even when she was ignored, pushed away, and called a name. Her courage brought healing to her daughter’s tortured life.
The Canaanite woman’s advocacy tells me that boldness, courage, and persistence can make a life-changing difference even when the vocation to which people of faith are called is complex, ambiguous, and overwhelming.