by Jeff Miller
Community seems as much caught as taught. It is hard work requiring intentionality and perseverance; willingness to plant and nurture relationships; capacity to actively wait for any fruit to be born; commitment to staying put and establishing deep roots; an innate ability to value diversity and living life together greater than upward mobility.
Growing up, common companions of mine were loneliness and a sense of being on the outside looking in. I was insecure and awkward with a deep longing to be included, never knowing exactly how or what to do to become part of a group or community. Sports provided fleeting glimpses of belonging but only lasted as long as the season.
My first true taste of being a part of community was in college. Doing life together in close proximity for four years at the Naval Academy was intense and challenging. The camaraderie and sense of belonging established through those common experiences was bonding and created deep roots with many of those relationships over several decades.
Later, living in Hawaii I experienced the concept of extended family or ‘ohana (beyond the “traditional” western nuclear family). Culturally it’s an extension of family including blood-relation, adopted and/or intentional members as well as emphasizing a bond of togetherness, cooperation and remembering one another. ‘Ohana was modeled for me, a single white guy transplant, by the members of a small church where I became intentionally included in the lives of all the various families as a son, a brother, an uncle.
These experiences were foundational and continue to be built upon through reading, dialogue and living. The following 5 books were also transformational. They helped “connect the dots” from various perspectives and put together a framework of a tangible model for living community deep in our blended geographic neighborhood.
Walking With the Poor: Bryant Meyers. Myers systematically lays out an integrated, holistic approach to life and living it together in community. His working definition of poverty being fundamentally relational was freeing for me… “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” His identification of the poverty of the non-poor and how easy it is for the non-poor to take on ‘god-complexes’ or to play god in the lives of the poor was ground breaking for me… “the non-poor are poor in another way that is also a mirror image of the poverty of the poor, two sides of the same problem.” His reminder to not de-personalize through labels was challenging… “the poor are not an abstraction but rather a group of human beings who have names, who are made in the image of God… who are valued, important and as loved as the non-poor.
The Irresistible Kingdom: Shane Claiborne. Much like its author, this book elicits strong responses. You always know where Shane is coming from, whether you agree with him or not. It was the first book that began to further unpack the need for the non-poor and the poor to know one another and live in relationship together. “I truly believe when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end… Redistribution comes from community, is a description of what happens when people fall in love with each other across class lines, held all in common precisely because there were of one heart and one mind”
Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Robert Lupton. Bob’s practical book addresses topics such as gentrification with justice, moving from charity to development, transforming enablement services into empowering economically viable enterprises. His unpacking of the concept of exchange and the dignity it provides was something I had known intuitively but had been unable to express… “ours is a unique opportunity to use our know how and our creative energies to design methods of exchange that enable those with little as well as those with much to come to the table, participate in the excitement of making a deal and leave satisfied, with dignity intact… to start using our heads as well as our hearts to build value into people and relationships—value realized only when authentic exchange occurs.”
When Helping Hurts: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I believe most desire to do good and are looking for ways to transform good intentions into genuine lasting change. Yet, Corbett and Fikkert challenge us to reflect how unknowingly we might cause more harm than good in our eagerness to step in and attempt to alleviate poverty. And, how our efforts could end up encouraging dependency while deepening the sense of inferior-superior complex between the poor and the non-poor. Pertinent was their clarification of the differences between and varied needs of relief, rehabilitation, development… “a helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation or development. In fact, the failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the common reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm… one of the biggest mistakes—by far—is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”
The Monkey and the Fish: Dave Gibbons. The book begins with an eastern parable that remains relevant considering the impact of dramatic global shifts being experienced today.
A well-meaning monkey sees a fish struggling in the water after a typhoon. Having a kind heart, the monkey with considerable risk to himself reaches down precariously from a limb of a tree to save the fish snatching him up from the water. The monkey lies the fish on dry land. For a few minutes the fish showed excitement but soon it settled into a peaceful sleep.
I especially appreciated Dave’s discussion around his proposed new ABCs (Artist, Business, and Community Developers). “It’s a new day, look closely and you will notice a powerful trend—the emergence of a growing network of innovators and influencers operating in the world who are artists, business persons and community-development specialists… artists create the languages, metaphors, and images to communicate ideas and values … business persons bring capital, know how, help create sustainability, provide front line wisdom to organizations and systems… community development specialists possess the view from the streets and the passion for change… we need to do all we can to identify them, team them up with one another, equip them and unleash them.”
This is a small window into what has shaped my view on community and poverty. I am certainly not there yet but continually striving to learn, apply and live it out (although it may be different and counter-cultural).
What has shaped your perspective on community? Would love to hear about your experiences and/or reads?
Happy New Year! Here is to a year full of joy, vitality and generosity (my three words, as opposed to goals, for the year).