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The Imperfect Work of Making Amends

Blog post originally published on July 10th 2021 at Commongood.cc

One white woman in Georgia inherited a farm. She started asking a key question: “What’s in the ground here?” She kept asking, and allowed the answers to spur her to action. Her story is imperfect. It is also courageous, especially in a moment where white society continues to run from digging around in the kinds of questions she has been asking.

Her Family Owned Slaves. How Can She Make Amends?
by Kim Severson

DIRT TOWN VALLEY, Ga. — Just before people started to take the pandemic seriously, Stacie Marshall slipped into the back of a conference room in Athens, Ga., and joined two dozen Black farmers in a marketing seminar called “Collards Aren’t the New Kale.”

She stood out, and not just because she was one of only two white people in the room. Ms. Marshall, 41, still had the long blond hair and good looks that won her the Miss Chattooga County title in 1998. The win came with scholarship money that got her to a tiny Baptist college and a life away from the small Appalachian valley where her family has farmed for more than 200 years.

Leading the seminar was Matthew Raiford, 53, a tall, magnetic Gullah Geechee chef and organic farmer who works the coastal Georgia land his forebears secured a decade after they were emancipated from slavery.
He asked if there were questions. Ms. Marshall raised her hand, ignored the knot in her stomach and told her story: She was in line to inherit 300 acres, which would make her the first woman in her family to own a farm. She had big plans for the fading commercial cattle operation and its overgrown fields. She would call it Mountain Mama Farms, and sell enough grass-fed beef and handmade products like goat’s milk soap to help support her husband and their three daughters.

But she had discovered a terrible thing.

“My family owned seven people,” Ms. Marshall said. She wanted to know how to make it right.

Mr. Raiford was as surprised as anyone in the room. “Those older guys have probably never heard that from a white lady in their entire lives,” he recalled.

For almost three years now, with the fervor of the newly converted, Ms. Marshall has been on a quest that from the outside may seem quixotic and even naïve. She is diving into her family’s past and trying to chip away at racism in the Deep South, where every white family with roots here benefited from slavery and almost every Black family had enslaved ancestors.

“I don’t have a lot of money, but I have property,” she said during a walk on her farm last winter. “How am I going to use that for the greater good, and not in like a paying-penance sort of way but in an it’s-just-the-right-thing-to-do kind of way?”

It’s not easy finding anyone in this farming community of 26,000 she can talk to about white privilege, critical race theory or renewed calls for federal reparations. She can’t even get her cousins to stop flying the Confederate flag. It’s about heritage, not hate, they tell her.

Farming, family and unspoken discrimination are braided together so tightly here that she can’t untwist them. She is aware that she sometimes stumbles across the line between doing antiracism work and playing the white savior, but she finds the history unavoidable.

“I can’t just go feed my cows and not be reminded of it,” she said.

Hers is the national soul-searching writ small: Should the descendants of people who kept others enslaved be held responsible for that wrong? What can they do to make things right? And what will it cost?
After the seminar, the farmers offered some ideas: She could set up an internship for young Black farmers, letting them work her land and keep the profit. Maybe her Black neighbors wanted preservation work done on their church cemetery.

Or maybe — and this is where the discussion gets complicated — she should give some land or money from the sale of it to descendants of the Black people who had helped her family build wealth, either as enslaved people in the 1800s or, later, as sharecroppers who lived in two small shacks on her land.
No one is sure when the sharecropper shacks on Ms. Marshall’s land were built.Nydia Blas for The New York Times

“She is deep in Confederate country trying to do this work,” Mr. Raiford said when he went to visit her farm this spring. If she can figure it out, he said, Chattooga County could be a template for small communities all over the South.

As the only young woman running a farm in the valley, Ms. Marshall already feels like a curiosity. She expects that people will turn on her for telling the community’s story through the lens of slavery. You can’t really hide from your neighbors here, which is the best and the worst thing about tight communities. Not long ago, she ended up in a CrossFit class with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican this region elected to Congress in 2020.

Ms. Marshall hasn’t told most of her extended family what she is doing. “I will get some hell,” she said. “There are people in this community that are totally going to turn when I start telling these things.”

At the same time, she is protective of her corner of the South.

“I don’t want my family to be painted out as a bunch of white, racist rednecks,” she said. “God, I am proud of every square inch of this place — except for this.”

Raised in the Faith

The rolling farmland in this northwest corner of Georgia has never lent itself to the plantation agriculture that once dominated other parts of the South. Today, about 300 small farms raise cattle and broiler chickens, and grow soybeans and hay.

Few make much money. The poverty rate has edged close to double the nation’s. Ms. Marshall, who is on the board of the local homeless shelter, sees people in need all around her. “It’s really hard for people in Chattooga County to understand white privilege because they’re like, ‘We’re barely getting by,’” she said.

Over the years, her father and grandfather drove trucks or took shifts at the cotton mill to keep the farm running. At 68, her father, Steve Scoggins, still works 3 p.m. to midnight as a hospital maintenance man.
Only 10 percent of the population is Black, a number that historians estimate was probably five times as high before the Civil War, and began to drop after Emancipation and as African Americans moved north to escape the Jim Crow South.

Most residents are evangelical Christians. It’s such rich Trump country that the former president held one of his last campaign rallies five miles from Ms. Marshall’s farmhouse. “Some good friends were at those rallies,” she said.

Her father, who lives down the road, is as proud of his farm daughter as a man could be. He unabashedly supports her work against racism, but at the Dirt Town Deli, he sometimes stays quiet when an offensive comment passes among his friends. All in all, he’d rather discuss his tractor collection and the fried-egg sandwiches his daughter makes him every morning for breakfast.

He also supports Mr. Trump, and doesn’t understand why in the world she started voting for Democrats.
In some ways, Ms. Marshall doesn’t either. Her childhood was steeped in conservative rural politics and the power of the evangelical church. She left home to attend Truett McConnell University, a Baptist school near the Tennessee border, on a scholarship for students with ambitions to become a minister or marry one.
There she met Jeremy Marshall, a product of the Atlanta suburbs who was studying for the ministry. They married when both were 21, and went on to earn master’s degrees — hers in education, at the University of Georgia, and his in counseling.

They lived and worked for a decade at Berry College, a liberal arts school in northwest Georgia where they helped care for 400 evangelical students in a special program paid for by the conservative WinShape Foundation. But last year, as the coronavirus hit, they decided it was time to move to the family farmhouse she had inherited.

Stacie and Jeremy Marshall with their three daughters: from left, Selah, 10, Grace, 7, and Addison, 13.Nydia Blas for The New York Times

Between the pandemic and trying to get her arms around how to run a farm, Ms. Marshall hasn’t really reconnected with the big tangle of extended family and friends she grew up with. She’s a different person from the one who left 20 years ago. Many things she accepted as gospel back then seem less clear now.

“Feminist was a dirty word growing up in this area,” she said. “And I began to realize, well, damn it, I think I am one. Some things just didn’t set right with me anymore.”

She is bracing for the family’s disappointment.

“I don’t think I have a greater moral compass or am more evolved than my family members,” she said. “We all grew up being taught, ‘Don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.’ I guess I am putting the laundry on the line.”

‘This Is Mine Now’

Growing up, Ms. Marshall heard that her family had once enslaved people, but the history hit her in a visceral way 12 years ago, just after her first daughter was born. The baby was struggling to nurse. Ms. Marshall was nearly in tears. Her grandfather, Fred Scoggins, tried to offer some comfort.

“You know,” she recalled his saying, “you get that from the Scoggins women. Your great-great-great grandmother couldn’t produce milk, either. So they had to buy a slave.”

They called her Mammy Hester, he said, and he spun the same false narrative that some white Southerners use to soften the harsh reality: The family had treated Hester so well that after the Civil War, she remained with them.

Ms. Marshall began thinking a lot about Hester, whose milk had fed her ancestors. Then, about five years ago, she learned that the truth was even worse than she knew. Her mother-in-law, an amateur genealogist who works her Ancestry.com account with cheery enthusiasm, delivered the news. “Did you know your family owned slaves?” she asked, producing documents she had discovered.

“I felt like I needed a shot of whiskey,” Ms. Marshall said.

But it was easy to shove the family history aside. Her daughters were growing up. Her mother got sick with cancer and died. She lost her grandparents. “I picked out three coffins in five months,” she said.
Her father gave her the family farmhouse and three acres. When he dies, she will take control of the remaining few hundred acres.

Ms. Marshall started clearing out the house. She was sorting through her grandparents’ cast-iron pans and old furniture when she came across a dusty boot box filled with wedding announcements and newspaper clippings.

Inside was a copy of a county slave schedule from 1860 that her mother-in-law had discovered. This time, Ms. Marshall really studied it. Seven people were listed under the name W.D. Scoggins, her great-great-great-grandfather, identified only by their ages, genders and race. Her family had owned two men and one woman, all in their 30s, and four children. The youngest was 5 ½ months old.

“It took on a different meaning because I was going through their jewelry and their clothes,” she said. “I was like, this is mine now. The family story is mine. Am I going to stick this in a drawer and forget about it?”

She thought about her daughters. “I knew I needed to reframe this story for them and for the farm and for this community,” she said.

The first seven lines of this Chattooga County slave schedule contain limited information about the people Ms. Marshall’s family enslaved.Courtesy of Stacie Marshall

W.D. Scoggins had another unsettling legacy. He acquired the family’s first tract of land, a mile or so from her farm, in an 1833 lottery that gave Creek and Cherokee land to white people. Key portions of the Trail of Tears start not far from her valley.

“So you figure out that you got stolen land that had the enslaved put on it, and your family benefited off that for a lot of years,” said Mr. Raiford, the Gullah Geechee farmer who has become her friend and adviser. “Now you have to have two different conversations. It gets complicated real fast.”

Asking the Preacher

If anyone in the valley could help Ms. Marshall begin her self-styled healing project, it was Melvin Mosley. He had been the assistant principal at her high school. He is also her father’s best friend.

The two men met as boys, when Mr. Mosley’s uncle lived in one of the shacks on the Scoggins farm and worked for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather. Mr. Scoggins went to the white school, Mr. Mosley the Black one. Every book at Mr. Mosley’s school was a hand-me-down from the white school, but the boys didn’t understand that their educations were different until they started comparing notes.

“One day he asks me, ‘Did you choose white milk or chocolate milk today?’” Mr. Mosley said. “Man, we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have chocolate milk. I didn’t even know what a spit wad was because we never got straws.”

Chattooga County integrated its schools in 1966, when the boys were in seventh grade. In interviews, the men talked about how unfair segregation was, but their perspectives on the past are profoundly different.
Both recalled joining the adults as they baled hay for Mr. Scoggins’s father, and breaking for midday dinner. The Black workers ate outdoors. The white workers went into the house.

“My mama would call them to come in the house, but they said, ‘No, ma’am,’ and stayed out by that wall there,” Mr. Scoggins said. “They were humble.”

To Mr. Mosley, eating outside wasn’t about humility. “We did what we did because that’s what you did,” he said. “That was a sign of the times.”

For decades, he taught in public schools and prisons. At 67, he is a preacher, and lives with his wife, Betty, on 50 acres near Ms. Marshall’s farm.

On a summer day in 2019, Ms. Marshall sat in their yard and told them she wanted to start sharing the whole, hard story of Dirt Town Valley, and make some kind of amends. She asked if she was on the right path.

Mr. Mosley always considered her a bright girl who should go to college — as he told her after sending her to detention for kissing a boy in the school mechanic shop. His advice now was simple.

“Let’s say that’s the water under the bridge,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” All she needed to do was to pour as much love on their valley as she could.

“In all of our families, Black or white, there are some generational things that are up to us to break,” he told her. “And when we break it, it is broken forever.”

He stood and took her hand. Mrs. Mosley joined them in a prayer circle. “Father in heaven,” he prayed, “we ask you just to continue to give her the courage and the desire to break the chain of racism, Lord.”

On another visit, just before Christmas, Ms. Marshall sat with the couple at their dining room table eating vanilla-scented tea cakes. She had brought a copy of the slave records, and was seeking their advice on whether she should compensate Hester’s descendants if she ever found them.

“People aren’t looking for a handout,” Mrs. Mosley told her. “We just want justice in all of the things that are going on. It’s hard to explain it to a white person, but if you’re a Black person you understand.”

Gravestones With No Names

With the slave documents in hand, Ms. Marshall set out to delve deeper, trying to track down Hester’s descendants and to share what she had learned.

She began telling her story in lectures at Berry College. After George Floyd was murdered last year, she decided to bring students to the farm. The Mosleys and other Black neighbors and farmers sometimes come, sharing a meal and leading a discussion about race.

The visits include a somber walk out to the remains of the two shacks. No one knows exactly when they were built, or when the generations of people who lived in them started calling themselves renters instead of tenant farmers or sharecroppers.

“We always called it sharecropping,” Mr. Mosley said. “What that means is that when you were living on a farm like that, you couldn’t object to things because you’d find yourself homeless.”

Early on, Ms. Marshall took some students to clean up a nearby cemetery where a heritage group plants Confederate flags near the gravestones of Civil War soldiers. Scattered among the family plots are plain stones marking the graves of the enslaved. There are no names on them.

The only name Ms. Marshall has to work with is Hester’s. Finding her descendants seems all but impossible. The first census taken after the Civil War showed that Hester had become a landowner in Chattooga County, and that one of her daughters had married a man named Perry. Ms. Marshall recently found what she thinks is his grave in a cemetery next to the historically Black church in Dirt Town Valley.

There are dozens of Black people named Perry in the county, but few other clues to their lineage. For many Black families in America, only the scarcest genealogical records remain.

“I think this is really where white privilege slaps us in the face,” Ms. Marshall said. “The context for my own family is that I can trace back and find names on historical documents.”

She has pulled threads where she can, joining the county historical society and studying the genealogical work done by a distant Scoggins relative.

But genealogy hunts can be expensive and time-consuming. Ms. Marshall’s days are already filled. Calves get stuck in the mud and have to be rescued. Goats need to be milked. There are children to raise.

Even if Ms. Marshall tracked down some of Hester’s relatives, what then? If she decided to hand over some land, she would have to find people who want to farm, or could at least shoulder the tax burden. If she sold some of the land and gave away that cash, how to decide who should get it and how much to give?

Mr. Marshall is a full partner in his wife’s antiracist work, but he likens financial reparations to carbon offsets but for guilt-racked white people.

“It’s like, ‘I’m not going to change my life, but tell me a dollar amount that would absolve me of guilt,’” he said. “That kind of transaction, whether it’s about the environment or racial inequality, is not going to create change.”

Some leading thinkers on formal reparations, in which the federal government would give money to Black descendants of the enslaved to help bridge the racial wealth gap and as a form of healing, say individuals like Ms. Marshall should use their time and money to push Congress to act.

Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights has called on the federal government to start a reparations Superfund. She said the small sum that Ms. Marshall could pay is no substitute for a government program, and would only impoverish her. It would not be truly reparative, and could even be dangerous.

“The risk I am talking about is not just about people shunning her, but the risk of people doing violence to her or her family,” Dr. Berry said. “Some people may take it upon themselves to shut her up.”

A Visit With the Kirbys

From her porch, Ms. Marshall routinely keeps an eye on the Kirbys, a couple in their late 70s who live just across the road. The relationship is a jumbled mix of shared history, familial love and unspoken pain.
When she was young, Nancy Kirby and her family were renters, living in one of the shacks before Ms. Marshall’s grandparents bought that tract in the 1950s. Gene Kirby sometimes worked for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather.

There are few people around to help the Kirbys as they age. A son lives in Ohio, but seldom comes home. A nearby niece pitches in, but can do only so much.

Ms. Marshall fills the role a daughter-in-law might. On holidays, she and her daughters deliver country ham and breakfast casseroles. When her mother died, Ms. Marshall stumbled into their den and grieved, her head in Ms. Kirby’s lap.

One of the first things Ms. Marshall did when she moved to the farm was ask the Kirbys if her grandfather had left any debt to them unpaid. Mr. Kirby asked her to untangle a small land dispute. Ms. Marshall promised to pay him for the land once they get it surveyed.

Ms. Marshall can’t imagine offering them anything that they might interpret as charity. They wouldn’t even accept the gift of her grandmother’s chair. Raising issues of reparations and reconciliation with them makes her uncomfortable.

“I would never want to do anything that would feel disrespectful,” she said.

But one afternoon last winter, Ms. Marshall walked across the road specifically to speak about racism. She brought a copy of the slave records, and arranged for Paulette Perry, 77, a cousin of Mr. Mosley’s who is something of a family historian, to join them.

At first, no one had much to say. They talked about Mr. Kirby’s tractors and who called Ms. Marshall the last time her cows got out.

Then they turned to issues of race.

“We never really had any problem with Black and white,” Mrs. Perry said.

“You just kind of knew where you stood and knew everybody,” Mrs. Kirby said.

The two laughed about how their brothers had to protect them from some white boys who threw stones as they walked home from school. How they hid under a bed, crying in fear for a half-day after someone pulled a prank and said the Ku Klux Klan was on its way.

The laughter faded. There were the hotel rooms Mr. Kirby was refused when he was on the road driving eighteen-wheelers, and the times he had to put up a fight to get paid.

And there was the death, at age 4, of the Kirbys’ son Gordon Eugene. A photo, with a lock of his hair, hangs in their den. On Sept. 10, 1967, a white teenage driver sped down the road not far from the Scoggins farm and struck him. Mr. Kirby saw it happen. “I was across the road holding my other baby in my arms,” he said.

The teenager’s mother denied that her son was the driver. Mr. Kirby said he called the sheriff and the state patrol, but they never showed up to take a report.

Standing on the Kirbys’ porch, Ms. Marshall said her goodbyes and headed back across the road. The path to reconciliation still wasn’t clear.

“These are people that I love dearly,” she said. “How do I put a number on what they have lived through?”

This article was originally published by the New York Times.

American Independent Business Alliance and Common Good Collective Partnership

We (Common Good Collective) have been hard at work with American Independent Business Alliance to produce and create conditions where collective social capital can occur by engaging people as powerful agents.

(The following blog post republished from the American Independent Business Alliance Blog)

From the Executive Director: A Just and Fair Approach

AMIBA and partners are leading the effort to understand the narrative and conversation needed to get more small business owners and consumers engaged in forming a just and fair approach to market concentration that works for all. The belief is that the way we create conversations that overcome the fragmented nature of our communities is what creates an alternative future. This can be a difficult stance to take for we have a deeply held belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs. We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now. What is hard to grasp is that it is this very mindset which prevents anything fundamental from changing.

We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation. This is not an argument against problem solving; it is an intention to shift the context and language within which problem solving takes place. Authentic transformation is about a shift in context and a shift in language and conversation. It is about changing our idea of what constitutes action. AMIBA is partnering with the Access to Markets Initiative, Small Business Rising, Small Business Anti-Displacement Network, Infinity Point (Equity Rising) and others on this important narrative building work facilitated in collaboration with Common Good Collective.

This collaboration with Common Good Collective seeks to cultivate association life where people, namely small business owners and operators, can provide for their own and the community’s well-being. We produce and create conditions where collective social capital can occur by engaging people as powerful agents. And, in this way, grow social capital — building trust and doing things together. Common Good Collective works at the intersection of the significance of place, the structure of belonging, and eliminating economic isolation. AMIBA works to address a more extensive range of issues impacting grassroots efforts to build better local economies. AMIBA’s networks have demonstrated and publicized the importance of local businesses to our national economy. These efforts included educating consumers and policymakers about how small businesses create sustainable jobs and how purchases from small businesses circulate and multiply dollars in local communities. AMIBA has advocated for local businesses impacted by racism and bigotry to community banking and entrepreneurship support. AMIBA seeks to bring a cross-disciplinary lens to improving social good and well-being to local businesses, alliances, affiliates, and supporters.

Please contact Executive Director, Derek Peebles, at derek@amiba.net if you are interested in participating in this work.


If you are interested in learning more about how the Common Good Collective and Common Change operate at the intersection of the significance of place, the structure of belonging, and eliminating economic isolation visit our websites: https://www.commonchange.comhttps://commongood.cc

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

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?

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


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