Calcutta

Who am I?

What have I become?

What has shaped me?

What do I want for my community?

In writing my previous post, it made me wonder at exactly how community works, at the wonderful complexity of how the society of our upbringing shapes us, and we shape it in our turn. I also wonder about whether we are truly progressing as we move forward in North America (and other “developed” nations), and what the cost of this progress will be. I continue to reflect on stories Glen Pearson and Marty Levesque told me about their experiences in Sudan and El Salvador. From the talk we had, I took this away from it:

Although through relief and long-term efforts, “developing” countries are being lifted slowly out of grinding poverty, they are also losing something of themselves in the process, something we may have already lost. While countries we consider developing (and therefore unfinished projects) are gaining something of a middle class and relative wealth, they may be losing their sense of community as the individual becomes self-sufficient, self-satisfied and self-secure. The countries we consider “developing” may have a great deal to teach us about ourselves, about what we have lost, what we must find again to be truly whole and healthy societies.

In his book “The Irresistible Revolution”, author Shane Claiborne gives a startling account of how a phone call to the other side of the world changed his life, and showed him what loving community can mean. While he was in university in the early 90’s he and some of his classmates pooled their money to make a long-distance call to Calcutta, India. When a soft voice came through the line, whispering against static on the weak connection, he asked if he had the right number to speak to Mother Teresa, if this might be one of her representatives.

The voice on the other side simply said, “This is her.”

When they asked what advice she had for them, how to live in community, how they can be a light in the world as she is, she simply answered, “Come and see.”

They went.

What they found was people in some of the worst conditions imaginable, but they also found a truly astounding community. Everyone relied on each other, and trusted that everyone would do all they were able to do, the more able taking care of the less, with Mother Teresa, as old and frail as she was, washing the feet and caring for the lepers in the community.

It was a community with so very little to share, relying heavily on the generosity of others for the supplies needed to sustain them. Yet every member seemed to know exactly where their place was, and the collective had a deep sense of self and purpose.

Shane goes on to talk about his return to the United States, and trying to make sense of a world that seemed turned upside down.

He reflected in time that the country was very much the same as he had left it, since they had only been gone 10 weeks. But everything seemed so different – he returned to a country where the middle class make up what could now be considered among the 1% of the world’s wealth, yet everywhere he looked he felt emptiness, soullessness. He encountered people burned out, depressed, angry and frightened. He found people without a sense of self, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging.

What was missing? What is missing?

Perhaps it is through financial liberation we don’t feel the same need to rely on others, giving us freedom, but also pulling us all apart.

Perhaps it is through adversity that we find our collective strength.

I think we’ve already seen something of this in London. When the massive Electro Motive plant threatened to close in January 2012, the neighbourhood and community associations rallied to the workers’ cause, picketing with them, sharing a coffee and stories in the cold. But much more than that happened. Soon, people from all over the city were there at the factory gates with them, showing solidarity with the workers, not because they thought that it would sway those making the business decisions, but just because they could.

It was a terrible moment in our city, one we continue to feel, as the workers had to try to find other work in the area, with many having to move from the city they love to find work elsewhere. Yet it was also strife that brought all of us closer together.

Events like the financial meltdown as well as political strife and unrest can start movements global in scope, including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, bringing people together under common cause. However, my hope is that we may start to come back together even in times of relative stability, instead of drifting back apart. How that may happen though, is much more difficult to answer.

I do think that small steps can turn into big action. If we endeavour to become more invested in where we live, it can help us get closer in tune with ourselves as well as the community that shapes us.

Make an effort to meet our neighbours. Host/participate in a community event. Become part of community organizations.

These may seem like small, inconsequential steps, but they can be rewarding beyond imagining.

Next post: Sharing Community

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