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Ways to Strengthen your Community

The real fear that many have about the Year 2000 bug is that our communities are not resilient enough to handle tough challenges. They may be right.

Such "signs of the times" are not hard to find. Think about the poverty and abysmal mean-spiritedness of our public discourse, the balkanization of the common good into a thousand contending sects of special interests, the ruthless and often unbridled lust for power and profit, the scapegoating of the poor for the benefit of the affluent, widespread corruption in business and government, and education systems that aren't educating. See the increases in homelessness, the long lines at soup kitchens, the rapaciousness of slum lords and criminal gangs, the cruelty of corporate thugs, the incessant quest for instant gratification, the willingness to use others for selfish gratification, the centralization of wealth, the concentration of economic power, the rapid worldwide increases in military expenditures, the two million people behind bars while the richest nation on earth lusts for Furby dolls, made by child laborers working 14 hours a day under appalling conditions for about 24 cents an hour.

This is not a system designed for sustainability and stability.

Pro-active action to strengthen our communities seems to me to be an essential element of living the justice and peace teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which call us to a communitarian orientation of solidarity and participation with all in our society. If we are concerned about the stability of societies under stress, we should remember that a strong and healthy community is better equipped to meet challenges such as weather disasters or political disasters or y2k or crime disasters than one that is poorly organized, characterized by injustice, and lacking in solidarity and participation. Here are some suggestions for strengthening our communities. (See also The Justpeace List: 116 Just Actions and Works of Justice and Peace., and Week of Novenas for Justice and Peace.)

+ Be involved. Know your neighbors. Join your neighborhood association -- or start one, if there isn't one. Be in solidarity with your neighbors.

+ Support local government initiatives that strengthen neighborhoods. Pay attention to things like community policing, trash, water delivery and sewage disposal. If you are concerned about disaster issues, contact responsible local utilities and government departments and ask what is being done to be prepared for issues such as y2k.

+ Be involved with civil society organizations -- whether it be the PTA, Scouting, or a political action group. Join one or more, or start something -- e.g., a food buying co-op can help you and your neighbors save money on groceries; a child care co-op could help with babysitting and child care, a community economic develop program can help produce jobs.

+ Strengthen institutions such as food banks by your donations and your personal involvement.

+ Commit yourself to involvement in your parish. If your parish doesn't have a parish visitation program, volunteer to start one or get involved with a team doing this. Consider helping prepare a Parish Emergency Plan.

+ Be personally prepared, in the event of a disaster in your area, to participate in pro-active leadership to lessen the threat and provide rescue, whatever it may be (tornado, fire, hurricane, earthquake, social disruption, y2k, etc.). Make a realistic threat assessment (e.g., what can go wrong here? Examples could include severe winter storm, tornado, hurricane, floods, earthquakes). Know how to turn off utilities (especially gas lines) and keep a wrench around to do so.

+ Donate books to your local library.

+ Encourage neighborhood evangelism and catechesis. This can be as simple as passing out rosaries door to door or handing out flyers inviting people to Mass, encouraging people to get their kids involved with the parish school of religion and sacramental preparation activities (or RCIA). It can be giving food to a neighbor in need, or helping somebody find a job, or praying with them in a time of need.

+ Support links between associations and people that cross neighborhood, ethnic, racial, and economic class lines. Remember that community is the entire community, not just your block (although that is where you start, it isn't where you stop).

+ Adopt a prudent and frugal and simple lifestyle (live simply, so that others may simply live). Abandon conspicuous consumption; donate generously (as your circumstances allow) to parish and civic society organizations and do not be stingy with your time.

+ Practice food storage. That is, keep extra amounts of staple foods that you and your family use a lot of on hand, preferably in a form that doesn't require refrigeration or freezers (in the event of power failures). This is controversial with some people, but I have personally practiced this in my life and it has been a good habit to have. There have been times when I have been out of work and it has been handy to have a full-stocked pantry. There have been other times when neighbors have come to me for food assistance; it is good to be able to take them back to the kitchen and stock them up as necessary. The Simple Living page has a lot of links regarding the whys, wherefores, and how-to's of food storage. By buying in bulk you save money, and by cooking basic foods rather than depending on a lot of highly processed and expensive brand name packages, you add quality to your life and that of your family. It's not a matter of trusting or not trusting in God; it is a matter of prudence, which is one of the four cardinal virtues.

+ Consider alternatives for cooking, lighting, and heating (especially in winter) that are not dependent upon the electrical or natural gas distribution systems. In Quebec this past winter, many people lost power for an extended period of time, and their heating systems wouldn't work (fans, pumps, etc. are electrified, even in natural gas systems). This can take the form of a kerosene heater, a Coleman stove, a wood stove, a propane heater that works off a propane bottle. The electrical system is particularly vulnerable to disruptions by severe weather, and in the winter, loss of heat can be life-threatening in a short time. In such a situation, your home can be a refuge to those without such resources. Those who are poor often have to deal with this, in the form of the personal disaster of a gas or electrical utility shut-off in the middle of the winter. Having alternative forms of heating available can help such people get through a really bad spot. One suggestion for (e.g.) parish St. Vincent de Paul organizations would be to stock some propane or kerosene heaters and make them available when this happens. Food can also be cooked in solar cookers that are easy to make (they were developed for use in refugee camps). There are links on the Simple Living page about this sort of thing. Look for propane or kerosene heaters at thrift stores; buy them cheaply, have them checked by a professional to ensure safety.

+ Store water (the easiest way is to wash and refill empty 2 liter soda pop bottles, and store them in darkness; every six months or so, empty them, wash them, refill them. Water supplies can also be suspended for various reasons, among which are cutoff by the water utility. If you live in a poor neighborhood, this is likely to happen to your neighbors (or even to you, if you are very poor). It is helpful to have two liter bottles of water to give to neighbors in such situations.

+ Encourage parishes to drill hand pumped water wells, and install generators and propane tanks on church properties. Provide propane or kerosene refrigerators for medication that requires refrigeration. Be prepared to immediately open church properties as emergency shelters and soupl kitchens.

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