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KU professor writes publications connecting spirituality, social work internationally

Thursday, May 16, 2019


LAWRENCE — Spirituality and religion are central facets in the lives of millions, yet when people are dealing with problems or difficult times in life, social workers are not always versed in how those aspects can help guide their recovery. Edward Canda, professor of social welfare and coordinator of the KU Spiritual Diversity and Social Work Initiative at the University of Kansas, has recently co-written several publications on spirituality and social work as well as consulted with professionals in East Asian countries. His aim was to determine how their rich spiritual traditions can be incorporated in their respective social work systems in a way that is culturally responsive and not simply an importation of a Western system.

The efforts are a continuation of his careerlong work promoting an inclusive approach to spirituality in social work, which was recognized by the Council on Social Work Education’s Significant Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

Ox Herding, Zen philosophy and social work education

Canda and Sachiko Gomi, professor at Western New Mexico University and former KU doctoral student, co-wrote a study on Zen Buddhist philosophy regarding spiritual development and how it can be addressed in social work education. Published in the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work, the article analyzes writings on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of images developed first about 900 years ago in China and then commonly used throughout east Asia. The pictures depict an ox herder seeking a lost ox, an important symbol in traditional Asian cultures, to illuminate steps on the path to enlightenment, including realizing the loss of one’s true self, finding guidance, realizing one’s true nature, traveling on the way to one’s true self, achieving harmony and oneness, and serving others with compassion.

In their education, social work students learn about various theories of human development and how life potential unfolds. However, the theories studied tend to skew to Western worldviews and philosophies, Canda said, and often don’t consider spirituality. Canda and Gomi studied commentaries on the pictures by monks, scholars and psychotherapists in order to help social workers reflect on the spiritual aspect of development and how the Zen view is similar or different from the views of their clients.

“It represents a journey that brings insights from spiritual awareness as gifts back to help the world,” Canda said of the series. “There is a connection to social work there because social workers are committed to promote well-being. We look at both the culture-specific meanings and the broad meanings of these pictures that can be relevant to anyone on a spiritual path. We explain how educators can use these insights in preparing social workers for professional practice with clients of diverse religious and nonreligious spiritual perspectives.”

The authors also analyze writings of Christian theologians who have connected the series of pictures to Christian thought about spiritual development and how to have dialogue across religious boundaries. Social workers need to be able to respectfully connect across such boundaries, Canda said, as they will certainly be called to help individuals from backgrounds different from their own, and many individuals are only familiar with one spiritual perspective. Embracing diversity and open-mindedness can allow social workers to be understanding, respectful, humble and skillful in their work across cultural and religious boundaries.

Transcultural perspectives in education texts

The theme of connecting across cultural and spiritual perspectives present in the Ox Herding article is also central to new editions of two textbooks Canda co-wrote. “Contemporary Human Behavior Theory: A Critical Perspective for Social Work,” fourth edition, was published earlier this year by Pearson. Co-written by Susan Robbins of the University of Houston, Pranab Chatterjee of Case Western Reserve University and George Leibowitz of Stony Brook University, the text was the first to present systematic ways to compare and analyze theories in social work at both micro and macro levels. Canda’s work in that book is focused on how theories address spirituality and religion in social work and how the insights from many different theories can be complementary and holistically linked together. Practical applications of the theories in both education and practice are included.

“Spiritual Diversity in Social Work Practice: The Heart of Helping,” third edition, is forthcoming later this year from Oxford University Press. Co-written with Leola Dyrud Furman, professor emerita at the University of North Dakota, and Hwi-Ja Canda, recently retired medical social worker at LMH Health in Lawrence, the textbook provides an overarching framework and many case examples for educators and professional social workers to understand how spirituality and religion can link to themes of compassion and justice and holistic practice in the U.S. and internationally.

“The purpose is to help practitioners address spirituality of clients in both religious and nonreligious forms with respect, humility and skill, as long as this fits clients’ interest and goals,” Canda said. “We also wanted to find out how religion and spirituality are considered in social work in various countries and how American views would compare. We did national surveys of social workers’ attitudes and practices in the U.S., U.K., Norway and New Zealand.”

The book features guidelines on how social workers can do assessments and, if clients are interested, employ spiritually sensitive practices like mindfulness, forgiveness, restorative justice and referral or collaboration with clergy and religious support systems in the community. This is designed to frame recovery and solution plans that focus on people’s strengths as well as resources in the social and natural environment.

Spirituality in Asian social work scholarship

In addition to those publications, Canda has recently been a visiting scholar and volunteer adviser with two universities in Japan, both focusing on spirituality and the Japanese social work system. For the former, he was a visiting scholar at Kansai University in Osaka during the summer, collaborating with his long-time colleague Professor Keiko Kano, who had been a visiting scholar at KU, on addressing spirituality in relation to human rights and disabilities. For his advisory role this semester, three researchers from Shukutoku University in Chiba interviewed him on how Buddhism can be linked with spiritually sensitive and inclusive social work practice. The focus was on how Buddhist traditions in many Asian countries have developed ideas of well-being and social support since long before Western-based professional social work took hold. Furthermore, this included consideration about collaboration, competition and integration between Buddhist traditional social work and professional social work. The Shukutoku University researchers are especially interested in how tradition can be maintained and innovated without being lost, all the while respecting culture and the role of spirituality in helping people.

Last May, Canda co-presented four workshops for the University of Hong Kong on spirituality in end-of-life care and, in September, presented a lecture on the topic for the Korea Foundation for Cultures and Ethics in Andong, South Korea. All of these drew on insights from Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and contemporary social work and gerontology.

“It really tries to take an in-depth look at specific traditions and link them with a transcultural perspective,” Canda said of his work, both in publications and service. “The idea is to honor perspectives that are unique, to encourage dialogue and collaboration between them, and to have a professional perspective that includes multiple perspectives.”

Video credit: Produced by KU Information Technology and Mark Crabtree for the KU School of Social Welfare.

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