In his essay From Solitude to Community to Ministry, theologian and author Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not easy….’Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.’….That person is always in your community somewhere; in the eyes of others, you might be that person.”
But what is community? Is it a place where we live? Is it an organized group of some kind? Sometimes the word is used that way, but the fullest, most true meaning of community is more about a way of living. It’s a description of the way we carry out our relationships with others.
By any measure, relationships can be difficult. All of us at some time have experienced conflict, pain, grief, and even the ending of relationships with family and friends. Not only that, but our society often seems characterized by hostile, argumentative, and broken relationships among many different groups—political, racial, gender, faith, and a wide variety of other dividing labels. It can seem that we are all, to someone, the person they least want to live with; and yet we are all presented with the challenge of living together anyway, in families, neighborhoods, cities and countrysides, and a turbulent, divided nation.
Our failure to live together well, to love each other well, to relate to each other in ways that are healthy and healing, and to create a society in which these kinds of relationships are the norm, is relational poverty—poverty of community.
Like spiritual poverty and material poverty, relational poverty affects us all. And its impact on us is far-reaching; brokenness in any of our four foundational relationships will affect all the others. Relationships with others that, in the words of Bryant Myers, “do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable,” can cause us to experience disruption and distance in our relationship with God, confusion or distress in the way we think about and make decisions for ourselves, and negative consequences at our jobs or in the ways we choose to use our physical bodies, skills, or gifts.
Living richly in community, then, requires a different approach. To thrive in community, and to experience reconciliation in our relationships with others, Nouwen says we must be able to “come together in a forgiving and undemanding way,” and to “call forth the gifts of other people, lift them up, and say, ‘You are the beloved daughter and the beloved son.’” We must create an environment in which everyone is welcomed and accepted, and everyone’s gifts and contributions are celebrated as having value.
These are the core values that we work to carry out at Salt & Light. We believe that the way to stop living in relational poverty is to begin by tearing down the barriers to relationship that we have erected between us. Our members and volunteers labor side by side to do the work that runs our operations every day, and it’s work that builds our own families and neighborhoods. We are all equal contributors in the process, and we are all equal beneficiaries. We have moved away from using a model that requires some people to be impoverished recipients and allows others to be generous benefactors–an arrangement that is inherently relationally unproductive–to one where we approach each other as equals, in ways that promote grace and forgiveness for our imperfections, celebrate our unique gifts and contributions, and recognize our shared humanity and common interests. We are working to make a place where all are welcomed, accepted, loved, forgiven, and celebrated, and we are all both the “helper” and the “helped”. This is what is necessary to sustain the Beloved community.
We cannot work effectively to solve the problem of poverty for any of us until we are willing to see it as a problem for all of us. We must know, deep down, that we are all equally human, all equally broken, all equally loved and accepted. Then, as Nouwen says, “We can build a home together and create space for God and for the children of God,” and we will leave poverty of community behind.