Richard Carson first became an ACET care volunteer in 1998. He went onto join the staff team and led the Education & Training Service for many years. He is the current CEO.
My journey with ACET begins on one of those cold Irish Spring evenings. A passing college friend mentioned to me that a local charity was holding a training event for new volunteers and I really should come along. 14 years, hundreds of care clients and tens of thousands of educatees later and I am still here.
My first client visit to someone living with HIV is still ingrained in my brain as something of a monumental moment (you never forget your first time!). The inner-city flats changed from being buildings to commute past on the way to somewhere else to becoming part of my own story. Over the years I have come to realise that the Rubicon to be crossed that day was actually not so much that of class or socio-economic advantage or even health but was of unearthing my own prejudices which needed to be processed and sanctified, a journey which continues to this day. ACET has always embodied what it means to be person-centred. This means that if we are to be effective then we have as much work to do on ourselves as we do with our clients.
There are so many ways that I could describe my journey with ACET but two tensions, within which ACET seeks to comfortably operate, continually get my attention.
The first of these tensions centres on the meeting of truth and mercy. When people hear that I work for a Christian response to HIV, particularly in the area of education and prevention, a whole range of questions flash through their minds. Sometimes they are even verbalised. “How does that work?” “What about abstinence, condoms, needle exchanges and homosexuality?” “What about sin, salvation, morality and love?” Obtaining the answers is not simple and even a Master’s dissertation in Trinity College has only achieved this in part. The psalmist, though, understood that at the centre of faith is a reconciliation of these two realities: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). Or as Bono (less eloquently) put it: “it’s annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren’t they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality and equality is a real pain in the arse.”
This tension of ruthlessly clinging to both equality and justice is something I have spent almost a decade and a half wrestling with. It has brought me to inner city schools in Dublin, homeless hostels in Belfast, hotels in Uganda, churches in Eastern Europe, youth conferences in Germany, global church gatherings in South Africa, medical conferences in Austria, accommodation centres for asylum seekers around Ireland and hundreds of places in between. I have attempted to articulate this tension across the Irish airwaves, in print media, on the BBC and in Skype calls from my living room in Crumlin to Universities in India. It has been thrilling, frustrating, fascinating and enriching. Looking back I wouldn’t want to have done anything else. So what’s the answer? Well, of course, I still haven’t fully figured that out but I know that at the end of the day “mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2:13)
This second tension is rooted in the year I spent immediately after finishing college. I was dividing my time between working with client families of ACET and working in a fee-paying school supporting various extra-curricular activities. The two worlds were one short Dublin Bus journey apart and suffice to say that the year broke me. How could I hold my identity of having grown up in relative prosperity while engaging with those who seemingly had so little? Was the answer to get as much
resources from those who have to those who have not, the model we have come to know as charity?
What ACET has taught me so well is that the best way to engage with this tension is to realise that true blessing can only come when we seek mutuality in friendship with those we work with; when we come to care for others believing that they can bless us as much as we can bless them. To practice this well is incredibly difficult as it involves a counter-intuitive giving up of power and of self. The temptation is strong to centre our work on our career, a cause or a particular community rather than on the possibilities that exist within a friendship. However when caring for those at the margins of society, ACET has shown me that it is the only thing that works.
My journey into these two tensions with ACET has not been made alone. I have been accompanied by extraordinarily gifted colleagues, clients and friends who have demonstrated what it means to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. In addition they have shown me that at the heart of these tensions lies the Christian story itself, manifest in an expression of love and an exhibition of the scandal of grace: that mercy and truth have met, righteousness and peace have kissed.