Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Companionship: A response to social isolation and loneliness

Rev. Jermine D. Alberty

December 3, 2019

I was recently in Portland, Oregon when a stranger approached me for assistance to feed himself and his son. The man said he had been on the streets for days, and people just walked by him without making eye contact, ignoring his existence as a human being. He felt like no one cared. I told the man that I would assist him, but I didn’t have any money on me, and he needed to wait for me to go to an ATM to get what he needed. He responded, “you’ll be just like the others and go the other direction.” I promised him that I would come back and asked him to please wait for me.

When I returned, I asked the man for his name and asked him how he became homeless. This man shared with me a heart-wrenching story of being incarcerated, returning home to a broken family, and everything he treasured – except his son – being ripped away from him. We discussed many things in our brief interaction before I said to him, “you matter, and you are a person.” His response stood out to me to most: “it feels good to be thought of as a person.”

In that encounter, I practiced Companionship. Companionship is rooted in our natural capacities as human beings to be sensitive, compassionate, and concerned for another person. Companionship is a practice of presence, a relationship responding to isolation and suffering, and supportive of healing and recovery. Offering Companionship, however, is not exclusive to our engagement with strangers. It can be offered to our friends, families, work associates, and anyone we encounter.

I have witnessed firsthand the pain and loneliness of family members and friends experiencing mental health and substance use challenges who needed someone to come alongside them and walk with them on their journey of healing and recovery. Research shows “two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others.” Research also shows that “only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.” We need more people equipped to walk alongside persons who need to know that they are not alone. Companionship is a response to this social isolation and loneliness. A Companion is a person who shows kindness to those that they encounter; they are a neighbor to someone in distress.

Research shows “two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.” Companionship is a response to this social isolation and loneliness. A Companion is a person who shows kindness to those that they encounter; they are a neighbor to someone in distress.

That is why, I have made The Companionship Movement and spreading the Model of Companionship throughout the nation one of our main priorities at Pathways to Promise, an interfaith nonprofit that collaborates with faith and spiritual communities to offer resources that assess, educate, and effect change to welcome, support, engage, and include persons with mental illnesses and those who care for them. 

The Model of Companionship is comprised of five practices: Hospitality, Neighboring, Side-by-Side, Listening, and Accompaniment. The practice of hospitality is about respect, honoring the inherent dignity in every human being. Hospitality creates a safe space, offering rest and refreshment in an often tense, confusing, and traumatic world. The practice of neighboring invites us to discover what we have in common with one another, set aside our power and privilege, and meet as equals. The practice of sharing the journey side-by-side helps us to look out at the world together, not imposing our priorities on the other. The practice of listening opens us to another’s story, hearing the other’s account without judgment. And the practice of accompaniment is sampling walking alongside the other, supporting the individual through connecting them with community resources to build a circle of care.

The Model of Companionship is taught in a 3-hour workshop designed to interactively help individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to move beyond the serving counter and into genuine relationships with people in need. Workshop participants learn how to embody the Five Practices of Companionship and how to honor their limits throughout such work.

We often begin workshops by informing participants that Companionship is a skill set that many people utilize—and often without even knowing it. It may even seem simplistic, but the practice can make an indelible impact on how you approach others. One example of this change occurred in Laura Glueck, a participant who attended a recent Companionship workshop. Laura was sure that the workshop would be a one-dimensional training with obvious information that she already knew. However, after the workshop and some deep reflection, she shared these words: “This past August, I had the honor to attend a Companionship training. I already knew plenty about how to help people. But I had to go deeper. When I did, I could acknowledge my surface assumptions were exactly what the training was trying to undo. The basic principle of Companionship is beginning a public relationship with a person who is suffering or in distress and helping them find the right solutions for themselves. Don’t put yourself above or before the other person, leading them. Instead, walk side-by-side and let their strengths, their goals, and their desires for life be the path for recovery.”

Companionship has the power to shift a person’s perspective and life. The goal of The Companionship Movement is to provide communities with the tools to listen consciously to the stories and difficulties of others, to enable at least a momentary reprieve from adversity, and to encourage strengthening for the journey ahead. We encourage all members of faith communities, community-based organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, peer support specialists, and any community engaged with and supporting those who are disadvantaged through practices of hospitality and outreach be trained in this poignant movement.

Rev. Jermine D. Alberty is executive director of Pathways to Promise and principal consultant of SALT Initiative. He is a National Trainer of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) a program to help the public identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. He is the co-author of the book Bottled up Inside: African American Teens & Depression. Visit The Companionship Movement or email to join or learn more.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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