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I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Written by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

On Saturday, June 29th, Antonio Medina Parra died at Duke Hospital. He was 63 years old—just two weeks shy of his 64th birthday. More than half a century earlier, Antonio had crossed the border from his birthplace in Mexico and begun picking in America’s fields. He worked his way up the West Coast, living in camps and working six days a week until he met Caesar Chavez in the fields outside Fresno and heard that workers were going to strike. Antonio was dubious about the prospects for organized labor. He jumped in a car and headed east to find work wherever he could.

Eventually, Antonio followed a woman he’d fallen in love with to North Carolina, where he married, had a daughter, and continued to live by the work of his hands. When Antonio came to Durham, no one here knew what a tortilla was. Life was not easy. His first wife died in childbirth. He struggled with alcoholism and had run-ins with the law. Even when he had the option of living inside, Antonio chose for years to live in homeless camps with other workers. Somehow he felt free there, in the open air. And somehow he kept going.

Nearly a decade ago, when Antonio didn’t recover from what seemed like a normal cold, he ended up in Duke Hospital and learned he had cancer. The doctors removed a lung and declared him in remission. But day labor was no longer possible, and disability wasn’t an option for an undocumented man who’d lived more than 40 years in the United States. Antonio joined us not because he was eager to live in community, but because he had nowhere else to go.

But he brought with him a deep Catholic faith and lots of experience sharing life with others. Antonio had a good sense of humor, a determination to press on whatever the odds, and a seemingly endless reserve of stories to tell at the dinner table.

A couple of years ago, after his birthday party at a local Mexican restaurant, Antonio had an acute lung crisis. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, where he nearly died. He spent three weeks recovering in the ICU. Visiting him one afternoon, I walked in as he was watching the meditation channel on the hospital’s TV. He invited me to join him, and pointed excitedly at the TV whenever there was a new sentence of guidance from the calm voice that spoke over soothing music. After six decades of attending Mass whenever he could, Antonio discovered in a hospital bed that he was a contemplative.

Or rather, he came to realize that others were contemplatives too. I never heard him say it just like this, but I gathered that sometime during his difficult and lonely childhood, Antonio had encountered the hidden strength at the center of himself. Maybe as a younger man he’d confused that strength with his own resolve or even libido (by his count, he’d had six partners in his life, though he couldn’t remember all of their names at the end). But when Antonio’s body could no longer muscle out a way to survive, he learned that Something at the center of his self was still there. In the stillness, he heard a reassuring voice. Even when he didn’t have the power to change his circumstances, God would take care of him.

Antonio expressed his faith simply: “I’ll be alright,” he’d say. As Antonio’s lungs failed, we wanted to make plans for when he should go to the hospital. We wanted him to be able tell us when our at-home care systems were no longer keeping him comfortable. “I’ll be alright,” he’d say with a smile. He knew he was dying. But he’d faced death his whole life. Antonio was showing us what it looks like to trust the flame that burns on the altar at the center of each soul created in God’s image.

I’m glad to have walked with Antonio at the end of his life, and I’m glad to be part of Common Change that stepped in and helped us pay for his funeral. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Once, Antonio was a stranger. Now, he’s family in God’s eternal home.

Member Story, Jessie Fuller of Riverside California

We recently caught up with Jessie Fuller, a teacher in Riverside, California who has been a member of a local Common Change group for years.

Common Change: How did you initially hear about and get connected with Common Change?

Jessie Fuller: We first learned of Common Change (or Relational Tithe as it was called at the time) through the book Irresistible Revolution [by Shane Claiborne]. We were extremely intrigued and it just so happened that shortly after reading the book, we met Jenn and Damien O’Farrell who were part of the group as well.

CC: What have been some of the joys and challenges of your group’s experience?

JF: Ohhhh, so many joys. One of the most recent ones has got to be the scholarships that we have been able to award students at my school. We invite them to go through the process of writing an essay and a member from our local chapter comes in to interview our students. We want them to feel heard and that their story matters and to feel that the money they received was dignified.  More than the money that we have given is the hope that is communicated in the gift – You are seen, your voice is valued, you have people who believe in you and your pain can be fuel to move forward and you can transform it into healing for others.

The challenges and opportunities for growth are more on the part of members – we are not here to control or put contingencies on what a person should/shouldn’t do with the money or judge the decisions they make. I think this is the beautiful and humbling part of being a part of Common Change and as members who meet together, it is important to have the hard conversations/reflections with ourselves and our fellow members.

CC: What have you learned and how have you seen the group grow?

JF: I think the deepest learning and growth for myself and the group is the heightened awareness that money is not always the best way to support people or it is just a small piece. The real hope is to continue to deepen relationships with others and to [not] view the relationship as an “I’m helping them,” but a true mutual reciprocation of love and enjoyment, as any genuine relationship would have.

CC: How has your participation impacted your relationships and your perspective on finances & generosity?

JF: I think I am increasingly aware that money is really just a vehicle.  On one hand, it is such a HUGE impediment for upward mobility, especially in the case of many of the students that I have the pleasure of working with. And yet, the reality is that there is such abundance amongst my husband and I and the social group that we have access to (and not because of anything we have done, but completely through unearned privilege). That said, it is so cool to celebrate redistribution with my students. This can be a funky thing though. I don’t want them to think they are just someone’s charity case, so in the situation with the scholarships, they work for it. We ultimately know we will give it to them, but I think there is something extremely powerful to owning your story and seeing yourself as an overcomer, no longer a victim. So, the money is the tangible thing they need to pursue education, but really on the deeper level, it is hugely impactful to know that there are adults who believe in them, recognize their worth, and are supporting them. 

Member Story, Rosalie

Marvin, an old man in his 90s, lives on the outskirts of the city. He was never married and never had children, so his only living family member is his sister’s son. Marvin’s nephew, Reynaldo, lives in a cave by the sea, several miles from the city. As bleak as the situation may seem, Marvin looks after Reynaldo as if he were his own son. Marvin wakes up early every morning to travel from the city to the sea, in order to care for his nephew. Marvin is entitled to one meal a day through a local charity, but he offers that to Reynaldo. Every morning before picking up the meal, a woman from the local Baptist church named Rosalie opens her house to offer Marvin some sustenance for the day’s journey.

It might appear that the most obvious opportunity for Common Change to offer financial support in this situation would be towards Marvin or Reynaldo. But the group is directly connected to Rosalie, who lends a tender hand to lighten Marvin’s load, while preserving the dignity of Marvin to do what he can to care for his nephew. Marvin and Reynaldo may never meet any of the group members who know Rosalie, but they have already benefitted from their generosity 

Confined By Labels

What if we no longer allowed ourselves or others to be confined by labels? What if the boxes of “wealthy” and “poor” and “disadvantaged” and “privileged” fell apart? This is not to suggest that these realities don’t exist; indeed they are a product of an intentionally constructed social order. However, what if we gave up seeing people through the lens of a label and instead looked through the context of relationship? When we use labels to describe people, it can trigger thoughts of deficiencies and diminished value, harming not only those who use the label but also causing those labeled to internalize the projected inferiority. Instead, what if we moved towards the idea that there are no inherently poor people, only those living in economic isolation, disconnected from social connections that provide both relational and resource support. If we confront the reality of economic isolation, it shifts the onus onto the community. How did that person become isolated? What systems have functioned to sever the connections between people? If we believe that the source of all wealth doesn’t live in a government or mansion or corporation somewhere out of reach, but is actually an abundant reality close enough to touch, then why should anyone be cut off? And what can we do to reconcile the isolation all around us and in our own lives?

Commonwealth of the Avocado

Written by Matthew Wilson

“Everybody gets 4 slices of avocado”, declared my 9-year old son.

Every family has its own little traditions and one of ours is that often, on a Saturday lunchtime, we’ll eat ‘Supersonic sandwiches’. It basically means that we have baguette but no idea what to fill it with, so we just pile on the table whatever ingredients we have and let the kids improvise. My son’s statement reveals that he’s figured out that some of the ingredients are going to be in high demand, especially if there’s an avocado in the mix.

“You’ll make a good economist son,” I told him.

“You’ll make a good communist” quipped his teenage brother.

What none of us around the table disputed was that the avocado was ours. It belonged to all of us. We just needed to figure out the fairest way to share it.

One of the most famous stories that Jesus told was of a youngest son who asked his father to divide the family inheritance early. As the story unfolds the son learns a painful lesson, that his desire to take what was ours and reduce it to what is mine, led him into poverty and loneliness. At the end of that story an elder son is brought into the scene and the father says something deeply profound to him:

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Luke 15:31 (NRSV). It’s a wonderful illustration of the way that claims of individual ownership become less relevant as relational proximity increases.

It’s just one of the many places throughout the bible that wealth is described as something that is held in common. We can follow this golden thread all the way from the covenant economics of the Torah, pushing back against Pharaoh’s grain hoarding and land grabbing; to the kingdom economics of the early church, who, in the face of merciless taxation by the Romans, worked out how to ensure there were no needy amongst them.

But aren’t such stories a bit primitive and idealistic? They feel like they come from ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. How can they be relevant to us now?

Last year, a team of European researchers were given a large sample of anonymised customer records by ING Bank in the Netherlands. The aim of the research was to use ‘big data’ to study the behaviour of households in relation to joint financial products such as current accounts, savings accounts, and mortgages. Bearing in mind that they were studying attitudes towards sharing financial resources within very close human relationships their findings were fascinating. In the final report three conclusions stood out:

  • Younger couples are much less likely to pool their household finances using joint financial products.
  • Having children is frequently the trigger for greater pooling of household income. The more children, the more likely it is that the family will be using joint financial products.
  • As income increases pooling decreases. The higher the income, the greater the autonomy between the partners.

Reflecting on the larger social and economic message of this research we might conclude the following: When it comes to money specifically, our modern tendency is to think of it as something that is mine, not ours, even within close personal relationships. However, the principle of pooling is still being widely practiced, showing that society hasn’t yet given up on the possibility of sharing being a key part of our economic wellbeing.

It was the gradual realisation that living faithfully as followers of Jesus had implications for our money that led our family to form a Common Change group, along with some friends from church. We were conscious that as friends we had begun to journey together, with a shared desire to make a difference in our community. Starting a ‘common fund’ together seemed like the obvious next step for us. We’ve committed together that we’ll put in £10-£50 a month, depending on what we can afford. Once the money is in the common fund it becomes ours and is no longer mine.

The pot quickly grows prompting conversations about what to do with it. This is where the Common Change ethos of looking outwards rather than inwards is really attractive. You see, our common fund isn’t an insurance policy for the member families, to smooth out life’s financial ups and downs. Instead, it’s a collective giving pot. We use it as a way to grow together in generosity. Whenever any of us knows of someone in our community who is struggling, we can discreetly make a request to have some of the money from the pot distributed to them. If the group agrees, which they generally do, then the gift is released. At this point, whether we have personally contributed a little or a lot to the common fund doesn’t really matter, as all of us equally share in having been able to support someone in a time of need.

So, back to my youngest son and the division of the avocado. He has absolutely the right sentiments, in wanting everyone to have an equal share. But my older son is right too; in pursuing our desire for economic fairness we must be careful that rigid systems of distribution don’t undermine the dynamic forms of common economic life that already exist between us. Rules should not work against relationships. That’s why we think our little common change group is so important. It can’t solve every problem in our community – we haven’t suddenly become the welfare safety net for our whole town. Rather, being part of it serves as a constant reminder that by being willing to share a proportion of our financial resources within a ‘common-wealth’ we can generate all sorts of exciting possibilities.

Matt lives in the Tyneside town of North Shields with his wife and two children. He runs a small management consultancy business and represents his community as a local councillor. His recent work on the economics of collective giving was recently published with the help of Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Read the work and watch the video from the event.

You can follow Matt on Twitter: @MWilsonFRSA

Lenten Immerse: Hospitality

Can you think of a time when you received hospitality from someone? Maybe it was an expression of kindness, a welcoming embrace, a warm meal, or a listening ear. Perhaps it took the form of someone who supported you when you didn’t feel you deserved it, or a new friend in an unfamiliar place. 

Take a moment to live in that memory and soak in the feelings their hospitality provided you. Warmth, love, acceptance, solidarity, community, and empathy are some of the feelings that can stem from hospitality.We practice and receive hospitality more often than we may realize. We find hospitality in the greatest commandment passage, Matthew 22:36-40, which calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. 36 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (NLT)Most of us are familiar with this commandment which calls us to love our neighbors. Let’s reexamine this well-known passage through the lens of hospitality. When we open the toolbox of hospitality, we bring out such tools as empathy, altruism, open-handed generosity. We discard self-interest, judgment, and inaction. Empathy is the key to hospitality as it forces us to place ourselves in the shoes of our neighbors. Empathy creates a deeper understanding of why we extend hospitality to others. When we practice empathy in hospitality, we build solid foundations for relationships and community connections. Take a moment and view this take on the hospitality tool, empathy.

Practicing Hospitality

Examining how we practice hospitality is integral to enhancing how we practice Christian Community Development. The Immerse Chapter on Listening to the Community informs us on how to practice listening, another tool in the hospitality toolbox.Listening thrives on living room couches and front porch conversations; through neighborhood potlucks and playdates. You can’t expect to fit “listen to the community” into your empty calendar slots. Real listening happens over time as we build relationships with one another.Listening to and empathizing with our neighbors

  • affirms the value of people’s stories
  • manifests fruits of the spirit
  • lays down our power
  • builds relationships through solidarity
  • incarnates Christ’s hospitality
  • centralizes our neighbor

Reflections

Practicing servanthood through hospitality is a radical task that Jesus lived and tasked us. It values everyone and builds kingdom community. It is an essential, repeated commandment that we must learn through discipline and repetition. Contemplate the following questions central to practicing hospitality:

  • How are you welcoming your neighbor without judgment?
  • With whom are you willing to practice hospitality? Consider your answer as revealing those needing inclusion.
  • Which tools are used the most in your hospitality toolbox? Which are in need of repair or sharpening/honing?

Hospitality Meditation or Prayer

Meditate on the following verse and recount that you too were once a stranger. Ask God to speak to you as you consider practicing the instructions given in the Word:

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NKJV) says:33 ‘And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. 34The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.This Lenten season, use this prayer to encourage the practice of hospitality…Most High God, create in me the tools of your hospitality and love for my neighbor. Open my heart and eyes to those I would not ordinarily think of extending your love towards. Remove judgment from my mind and use me as an extension of your acceptance and love. Give me an open hand of generosity and a strong voice to speak with those who have a need for hospitality within my community and country. I praise you for offering me your grace and unconditional love. Use me to build up your kingdom community.

 

We all want to believe there are social safety nets that will prevent our most vulnerable from falling through the cracks created by poverty and economic insecurity. But, the reality is that almost half of Americans could not cover an emergency expense of $400 or less. We live in a time of great economic isolation for which safety nets no longer exist. Engaging with our neighbors in practices of Generosity, Listening and Hospitality is critical for Common Change members –   Read more now

A Thank You Note

Common Change receives its fair share of thank you notes and we occasionally share them as a way to remind us all to do small things with great love and how that simple act can have a ripple effect.

Anyway, thank you for what you do on a daily basis to change people’s lives. This was such a blessing to Christina and changed her life in such a profound way. And she will use this house to bless others so the circle just keeps going.

Here’s the back story

Cristina lives in Central America in a modest house on the side of a mountain. She spends her days visiting the poor and elderly, helping meet their basic needs. She applied to a government program that would build a more stable house for her and her family, but the government funds would only cover half the cost. A friend in the U.S., who happened to be a member of a Common Change group, requested the remaining funds to construct a decent and safe home for Cristina and her family. And in turn, in her new home, Cristina hosted her neighbors and those in need from her community.

How often do we wonder what a person would do with the money if we could give it? If I’m honest, I assume they’ll spend it frivolously on things that I’ve determined they don’t need. What a humbling, convicting realization than to see a person who receives generosity turning around to bless others. We think we are just helping a friend, but we may never know how many people were helped because of the one person we touched.

Giving, Receiving, & Vulnerability

How do I know that a gift given will be used the right way is a question that we get asked when people are exploring Common Change. Here’s a story of a recent gift given by a Common Change group that wasn’t used in the way that the group originally discussed.

Jasmine knows that when it rains, it pours. First, the sole family vehicle broke down. Around the same time, Jasmine’s husband Ricky lost his job, and with it their only income stream. Fortunately, he was re-hired a few weeks later, but the temporary hit took a big toll. The car was still out of commission, so Ricky had to take a Lyft to work. The bills didn’t stop coming when the income was interrupted, so some days they had to choose between food and getting Ricky to work. And in those weeks when he missed shifts, his paychecks were short. The bills kept piling up and rent couldn’t be paid on time. Before the car died, Jasmine would have brought Ricky to work and then the kids to school. Now, Ricky was able to hop in his co-worker’s truck to and from the job site, and Jasmine would walk the kids to school. But on rainy days, neither Jasmine nor her kids wanted to walk the half mile and get soaked. Cassie, another mom from Jasmine’s kids’ school, offered to bring the kids so they wouldn’t miss school.

Because there was something of a relationship there, and because Cassie knew about the car troubles, she was able to activate the generosity of her Common Change group in requesting funds to help fix Jasmine and Ricky’s car. That in itself was a brave and kind gesture, accompanying Jasmine into the uncertainty and stress of the situation. But once that door was opened, it was Jasmine whose courage really shined. She set her pride aside and, recognizing the hand reaching out to offer help, took the invitation to give voice to what she really needed. The car was still a big need, but the bills that went unpaid would have caused bigger problems than having to walk to school in the rain. Jasmine and Ricky were facing utility shut-offs and possible eviction from their apartment. But they heard the voice offering comfort and support and they responded. Their faith to ask for what they needed is an example for all of us. They received the initial gift with humility and gratitude, never having expected that the spiraling circumstances would have left them as low as they were, but also as surrounded with community as they felt. They didn’t stop there, though. They used their voice to see if, just if, there was even more abundance available to meet their needs. They could have stayed quiet, feeling they could not ask for more after having gotten a little bit. They could have kept their needs to themselves, fearful of the inevitable desperation that would soon swallow them whole. But instead, they started by just asking. They stepped out in faith to see if possibly the source of goodness which touched them once was still present to listen and
respond.

Sometimes, maybe often times, the money we give gets used toward something other than what we thought it would. There is something scary but also liberating about giving up control over where your money goes. We lift it up, trusting God and entrusting its stewardship to the wisdom of the group. By the time the funds arrive at their destination, there may be another need that pops up. We take the step of responding to needs we see, but we are often reminded that the person with the need can best identify the solution.

Neighborly Economics: A Way Towards the Exchange of Gifts by Peter Block

In other times, our culture, our way of being with each other, the way we spend our days, were constructed by Emperors, Popes, Generals and Public Servants.

Our cultural way of being is now constructed by the Private Sector, organizations of the free market consumer economy. The narrative of this economy is that productivity, convenience, scale, speed and cost are the dominant values and constitute success. These values, born out of the modern economy, have now spread into our souls and blanket any endeavor, including efforts in service of humanity and the common good. Best described as the tools of empire, this is a modern re-performance of Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We cannot end poverty, end the diaspora, terminate slavery, produce health, care for the planet, create well-being or end violence using the narrative and tools of empire. Our task it to create ways of being together based on an alternative economy which confront and re-frames this dominant economic narrative. Thus the word Economics in the title.  

If we depart from the dominant narrative of consumption, we need a place to go. The Exodus into the wilderness away from Pharaoh is a metaphor for our journey. When viewed from within the context of empire economics, the wilderness appears to be a place of no visible means of life support. Inconvenient. What was discovered in the wilderness was the means of life support which we can call neighborliness. From God. From other immigrants. It was a gift minded community. It was based on associational life. Out of this came commandments of neighborliness. Paralleled in Islam were Sharia laws banning usury and devoting one third of the land to the common good. Thus the word Neighborly in the title.

All of this calls for something radical. The word, radical, asks that we reimagine the root of the matter. The habit of our immersion in the consumer economy often drives us to think in terms of the methodologies of the dominant culture. To become practical, goal oriented, measurement minded, desirous of scale, time pressured, asking how long will this take and where is it working. This is the wish to return to Egypt.

Neighborly economy means we operate as if we have enough time, begin with a possibility, accept an uncertain future, see the value of small, make relatedness and cooperation central, and are willing to invent the way.

(This article was originally published on https://www.restorecommons.com)