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Does rugged individualism limit our ability to build community?

This article is reposted from March 18, 2013.

This week I had the pleasure of a visit from Stanley Gitari Imunya and Mary Karimi Gitari of Kenya. Our mutual acquaintance, Susan Hillebert, organized our meeting believing that our respective work, though 8,000 miles apart, had much in common and that there are things we can learn from each other.

Indeed, I was very intrigued about the work of Zoe Ministries which uses community as the basic building block that nurtures the ability of aids orphans to become self-sufficient. When orphans are accepted into the three-year program, they are formed into supportive communities of about 80 children that work the tenants of the program as they also show care, support and compassion for each other. The stories of the children’s generosity and the way they make decisions that care for the whole of the community and the least among them impressed me.

Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) also uses the basic building block of community in our mission to strengthen and renew neighborhoods across the Midsouth. As we finished our conversation, I shared with Stanley that I was eager to learn more. What are the tools, the processes, the methods that Zoe Ministries uses to bring the children together in community and foster such deep generosity and selflessness?

My question seemed to puzzle Stanley and I realized that I was not going to get his handbook on building community. I realized, upon reflection, that what I wanted to know did not need special methods and processes in Stanley’s culture. What I wanted Stanley to share with me were tools for countering the North American culture of individualism, competition and scarcity. I was hoping for tools that would move a group of people from seeing themselves as individuals with self-interests to protect to seeing themselves as a community, a collective, interdependent, where the well-being of the whole is represented by the well-being of the least among them.

As Peter Block, author of Abundant Community, writes, “Caring for our community and convening citizens to care for their community is difficult work. We are working against the whole tide of the dominant culture which worships individualism, self-interest, and competition.”

Although Stanley cannot teach CTC and the Shalom Zones how to build community in a society rooted in rugged individualism, there is still much we can learn from the way he, Mary and the Zoe Ministries ‘seek shalom’ for the orphans in their country. And, Stanley and Mary were interested to know more about how community and cooperation is fostered through CTC in the Shalom Zones and at The Commons.

Peter Block goes on to write that even though you will not see it much in the news, initiatives like Communities of Shalom and other citizen-based initiatives are creating a surging “movement toward interdependence, generosity, and cooperation that is changing the world.”

I hope you will join us in this movement!

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