It happened at a meeting of the Church and Society committee.
The discussion first turned on how difficult it was for farmers to make ends meet in today’s economy. The point was made that if farmers would only work together, and not each want their own full line of equipment, their overhead costs would be cut, and they could manage more easily. Hutterite communities in fact seemed able to make farming a success. Community made the difference.
The discussion moved on to a very successful project in the inner city. Parents would meet together in a kitchen, perhaps in a church hall, and work together to make meals that they could freeze and take back to their families. Skills were being taught in managing foods and budgets that made the difference between a family being reasonably well fed until the next welfare cheque arrived, and going hungry. Community made the difference.
My own story was of a program taking place in a number of Canadian prisons, called Alternatives to Violence. Groups of twenty or so people, from inmates and the outside world, learned the practical application of self-respect, care for others, faith, hope, love and the power of God, to solve problems of personal relationships. The first step was to set a number of rules of behaviour by which each person could be open with the group, and yet feel confident that he or she would not be ‘put down’. As the weekend progressed, trust developed and attitudes began to change. Community made the difference.
I believe these stories have a lesson for us. In the individualistic world we live in, it is as if we expect the failures of our society to have in some way to put themselves right, before the community as a whole can accept them. People run off in droves to therapists and counsellors, who spend hours of expensive time on a one to one basis, finding ways in which they can ‘get their act together’. After that, the theory is that we can go back to society, and pretend that nothing has ever been amiss. Our ‘image’ and our self-respect will be unimpaired.
The world doesn’t work that way. The concept that problems of poverty, health or criminality in society can be cured by simply throwing money at them and expecting people to change and cope, has been found wanting. The money has run out and the problems remain unsolved.
Community, and the Gospel, have a different message. The church is, after all, a community of redeemed sinners. It is within this community that we confess that we have “erred and strayed” and that “there is no health in us.” It is out of this community that forgiveness and acceptance come to us, just as we are. And it is out of that forgiveness and acceptance that we are enabled to grow and change.