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There is Power in Community

For the last post of 2012 I reflect with gratitude on the amazing community of Spirit in Action. Below is an except from my sharing with the Point Richmond First United Methodist Church last month about the power of community.

Dorothy Day says, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our neighbor, and living close to God in community so we can show our love for God.”

Who’s your community? How is community formed? I’ve seen recently in the news how disasters can create community. People come together to pitch in and help people they’ve lived next to for years but never met. Those extreme situations, like Hurricane Sandy remind us that we’re all connected. For myself, I’ve realized how I have a need to feel connected, to learn, to share my skills with others, to be a part of a community.

Cutting the cake at Sunny's Surprise Baby Shower during one of our knitting sessions.

Cutting the cake at Sunny’s Surprise Baby Shower during one of our knitting sessions.

Two years ago I lived in New Haven for just 8 months, while my husband had a scholarship at Yale. Knowing my need for community, I set about looking for where I fit in. Almost right away I found a group of women who were also all looking for connections – spouses of international students.

We started a knitting club and we soon formed a tight network. People gave and received in this group, invited people over for dinner, helped each other learn English, looked over each other’s job applications. And this is what’s special about community – people give because they receive, and they receive because they give. That reciprocity and openness is the core power of community. We’re willing to open up to this flow in community.

Giving to Your Neighbor

I recently learned about a concept called Horizontal Giving – it describes the act of giving and receiving from your peers, as opposed to Vertical Giving, or receiving help from above. The study I read found that in North Carolina the giving that happened between people is so much more important for people’s day to day lives than their receiving from the government or even from organizations.

People described how they helped family members by giving to them, or how an elder in their community mentored a younger man. New immigrants to the US helped each other navigate the new bureaucracies.

One of the Latino participants shared: “You get to make friends here, and sometimes just a phone call or whatever – that’s a big help. In my case, since I don’t know many people around here, I find it very depressing just to be locked in [my house].” I can definitely relate to that. The researchers confirmed what we know, a simple act of reaching out encourages us, helps us, and brings us closer together in community.

Of course, community doesn’t just exist here, or at Yale, or in North Carolina. SIA, recognizes the strength in communities. Peter Laugharn of Firelight Foundation says, “Community is one of the strongest, well-distributed assets in Africa.” Communities in Africa are already giving and receiving and SIA supports that and gives grants to help those local projects get started.

Don’t just help; Serve

CIFORD Kenya engages support from the whole community to support education for girls.

CIFORD Kenya engages support from the whole community to support education for girls.

SIA supports grassroots organizations to be the support for people in need in their community. And there’s so much need in Africa. There are basic needs (shelter, food, education) and there are basic emotional needs (recognition, encouragement, the need to be loved). SIA taps into communities and works to foster the horizontal giving – that peer to peer – that we know is already occurring, and which we know is powerful.

CIFORD Kenya and MAVISALO in Malawi are just two examples of people coming together, collectively addressing local needs, and working on giving at a horizontal level.

Why is giving in community so strong? Why does it make such an impact? In part, I think it’s because in a community, the interactions are all about serving others.

Rachel Naomi Remen who wrote Kitchen Table Wisdom, writes about the power of serving in her essay, “Helping, fixing or Serving?” She says, “Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequity. … When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. … Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power.”

SIA doesn’t have Americans going over to help these communities in Africa. Remen, also says, “We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”

And so I see that the way SIA works – empowering communities and community organizations – is so strong because it builds on that power of people serving those who they already know and who are close connections – their neighbors.

Working through community organizations like MAVISALO and CIFORD, SIA is able to serve, and I am able to serve, more honestly. We are not seeing Africans as a group weak, in need of helping or broken, in need of helping. We are seeing them as models of service – people acting to serve their neighbor, to make life better for the community.

Wholeness in Community

Singing in Malawi

Singing in community. MAVISALO in Malawi.

Let’s rejoice, believing in the power of community. Let’s start recognizing the power of communities in Africa; that power from God in us that moves us to serve; that power from serving those who we are intrinsically connected to.

Serving is the wholeness in me serving the wholeness in another. Del Anderson, who started SIA at the age of 90, started the organization with the intention of serving the “whole person” – serving body, mind, and spirit. It was a bigger version of service, one which honors each person’s complexity and need. The way to help the world is to stop helping and instead use the power of community to reach and serve those families and children, and parents, and grandparents, in need.

Let’s remember the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Our daily bread. And as we pray this I encourage you to open us this season to notice how you give and receive. And why you give and receive. What communities are you active in? How are the needy (whatever their needs) served? How do you support community? Can you start seeing Africa as a network of communities serving their neighbors?

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