Her name is Serena, yet there is nothing particularly peaceful about her. At the age of nine she is far from bashful, boldly approaching friends and strangers alike to announce her latest adventures and disappointments. Her curly locks are her most attractive feature, and she faces the paradoxical reality of obesity and hunger found among many poor children in America. Unfamiliar with the social expectations present among the middle class, she can appear like a bull in a China shop – uncontained and impulsive. Serena is not afraid to ask for anything, and knows when she is in the company of an adult with resources- one who can buy her food or entertainment. However, most apparent of all, like any other person, she is desperate for relationships and cries out for love in her own distinct way.
You could say Serena is practically my neighbor, living just a couple miles north of my rural Ohio home, in a stowaway Appalachian community. Yet, our worlds would’ve likely never intersected had it not been for a small church ministry. Apathy and cynicism reflected the feelings the community had for the shell of a church building at the edge of their neighborhood. Layers of white paint on the block exterior told the story of many ministries come and gone. The story of this formerly abandoned building, being dusted off yet again, is a tale familiar to many churches and grassroots non-profits across America. The ministries which had come and gone were mostly initiated by outsiders attempting to ‘fix’ what they thought was broken, or by insiders who didn’t have the resources or the structure to offer anything sustainable. Yet here I was, an outsider trying to take it all in and figure out what my role was supposed to be. And there she was, asking for a ride home. As I pulled up to her driveway I noticed a small home by American standards, probably around eight hundred square feet, being inhabited by eight adults and three children. Serena’s living conditions were actually better than what I learned about some of her neighbors who were living without running water or were wiring electric from nearby homes when they faced shut-off.
Although I’ve never had to personally face economic poverty, these circumstances are not unfamiliar to me. I’ve dedicated the entirety of my career to poverty alleviation and have met hundreds of families who demonstrate resilience in the face of economic hardship. However, this type of profession has afforded me the ability to step in and out of poverty. Trained in social work, I was encouraged to set strict boundaries, to not let others in, and resist any type of relationship that moved beyond a professional assisting someone in need. These boundaries, while not unwarranted, subtlety seeded in me further isolation from parts of my community that I desperately needed to know.
As one wise man put it, “the opposite of poverty is community”. Truthfully, I didn’t intend to really get to know Serena or her family. Relationships are hard. They require effort. They require risk. To cross economic and cultural lines requires a different type of intention. Many forces work against it, often all at once. These include the visible and invisible boundaries of fear, bias, neighborhood lines, culture and race. And don’t forget narcissism, comfort, and apathy.
Therefore, if you and I are committed to fighting poverty by restoring community; then we must also live in the tension of the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the manifestation of community in our own life. And not just the community found in our homes, or among family or friends who know us best. The purpose of this blog is to challenge all of us to Rethink Community. This ‘rethinking’ shouldn’t just occur in our minds, but be worked out through our actions on and off the proverbial ‘clock’ of our profession. This includes everything from the boardroom to our living rooms.
So I am thankful for the encounter and invitation into relationship with my new friend, Serena; as is my family. She is teaching us new life lessons and receiving them as well. When we share ourselves, we are given the opportunity to make each other better- and better people build stronger communities.
Marlo Fox, Assistant Director, Think Tank, Inc.
For more about Marlo and her work, go to www.thinktank-inc.org