What sort of society uplifts a child and leaves a mother homeless?: We need a new vision of what it means to BE community?/ A.J. Hendry

“We still don’t understand, why did they take our baby, and leave us on the street?”

Can you imagine having your child taken from you and being left to live on the street?

The young couple who sat in my office were only 16 and 17, and this is precisely what happened to them. Both had spent significant time sleeping rough, and when their baby had been born the state had rightly judged that Queen St was not a safe place for a baby to live. And so, the baby was taken, and the young parents were told that if they could find stable accommodation, they could work to having their child returned into their care.

Can you imagine this happening to you?

How do you think you would cope with having your baby torn from your arms, while you were sent back out to live on the streets?

What has happened to our communities that this sort of thing can happen? How did we become so disconnected, that we could create such a situation, where we’ll take a baby from a mother’s arms to keep them safe, while leaving young parents alone to sleep on our streets?

What is wrong with our communities?

What is wrong with us?

On one level, we hear these stories, and we want change, right? We care, no one really wants these things to happen. And yet, on another, we need to recognize that this suffering is a necessary product of the systems and structures we have created to govern our lives.

We live in a society that is shaped by the values of Individualism and Consumerism. This impacts the way we organize our communities, how we structure our lives, what we do with our tax, and how much tax we’re willing to pay. It is why a large amount of us resist increasing taxes for the wealthiest among us, perhaps because we hope that one day, we’ll be counted amongst those chosen few, or perhaps because our culture has taught us to believe that wealth is an individual thing, born, acquired and created by the individual. A notion which – if we were willing to truly examine it – would quickly dissolve.

It’s why we view housing as a commodity to be consumed by individuals, and why, in the middle of a housing crisis, we still champion and celebrate the individual’s right to own multiple home’s, regardless of the impact that is having on our wider community.

It is why we as a society we are slow to move on renter’s rights (even though many of us are renters), and why we are resistant to regulating the rental market, despite the harm that is being done to families and kids who are having to grow up in unsuitable and unhealthy homes.

It is why we resist raising main benefits, or raising the living wage, because the more I share with you, the less I can consume for myself.

So, even though we may care that these sorts of things happen, I’m not convinced that the way we structure our communities forms us into the sort of people that are equipped to care for one another. Most of us are not conditioned to live in genuine community, community is something that is itself a product. A thing, a social club, we consume to meet our individual needs.

And as a result, our people are suffering. 29% of young people at school (between the years 9-13), experience severe housing deprivation, and 10% of that group are sleeping in motels, in cars, on the floor, or sharing a bed due to overcrowding. An average of 20 children die each year, and 30,000 are hospitalized due to preventable diseases caused by the state of their housing.  And on average, 150,000 of our kids are living in material hardship, according to the Child Monitor report released in 2019.

Our society doesn’t have to be this way, despite what we’ve been told, there is enough to go around, and we can end these injustices, but not without a revolution of values. Not without deciding that we care more about the wellbeing of our communities, than we do about the wellbeing of our bank account.

Charity cannot solve these issues, but Justice can, the world made right, the Divine Dream coming into focus and transforming our reality.

If you listen to a lot of social commentary, you’ll often hear that what we need is more services, and more Government funding, and if only we had these, that these problem’s would go way. And while, I’ll be the first to say that the Government could be doing a lot more, there is also no changing what is happening in our communities, until we change ourselves.

And to do that we need a new narrative.

A narrative of resistance, one that name’s the Empire for what it is, and gives us the tools to revolt against the chief deities of our society, to rebel against the dehumanizing constraints that Individualism and Consumerism have set for our communities.

We may find these narratives in various places (tangata whenua have a lot to offer us here). But, for me, I find them within my faith Tradition.

It may come as a surprise, precisely due to the manner in which the Christian Faith has historically been a part of upholding systems of oppression and dehumanization, yet still I see within this Tradition, real potential for faith communities to offer forms of resistance against Empire.

You see our whakapapa goes way further back than Western Christianity’s collusion with the Colonial Empire. Our movement was founded by a Jewish peasant, a revolutionary whose people had been colonized by the Empire, a radical who represented some of the most marginalized and oppressed people within his society.  In a world shaped by poverty, oppression, and colonization, Jesus’ message was one of Hope. To a people suffering and desperate for Liberation, Jesus provided a message of resistance. His was a message of Hope, one that spoke to the Power’s of Empire, and named them for what they are. Inhuman, Unjust, Demonic.

Jesus’ message was that the Divine’s Dream for this world was coming into our reality. A world that had no room for poverty, no room for the sort of racist, classist systems that separated human’s from one another, no room for the Rich, who gathered and multiplied their wealth at the expense of their fellow brother’s and sister’s. In this Divine Dream, there was Justice. The world made right. Love was the foundation stone, by which this Dream was laid, Love was the Way, that humanity was invited to walk.

And Jesus modeled this, healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the poor, and announcing Liberation for the oppressed. Jesus envisioned a world where Caesar no longer ruled, where Love for one another was the Law, and where the Divine Image was acknowledged in all people.

And though the power’s that be killed him for having the audacity to dream such a dream, the community that he founded continued his Dream, creating communities of resistance in opposition to Empire. Where the Empire took from the poor to expand the wealth of the rich, those who followed Jesus shared their resources so all were feed. Where the Empire sought to separate people along class and racial lines, the community of Jesus saw the Divine image in all people, creating space for the least and the lost, and moving into solidarity with one another.

These early followers of the Way of Love were an alternative community in the heart of the Empire. A movement that offered resistance to Empire, spurning hatred and violence, they transformed society through their Love for one another.

Faith communities have an opportunity to lean into this narrative, and in it discover a story that allows us to push back, to reshape our imagination, and refocus ourselves on what it means to be humans, in community with one another.

To lean into such a narrative will require a shift, perhaps a movement away from the way we have been conditioned to view the structure and shape of our communities. But, what if we reimagined our faith communities as Hub’s of Justice, communities of resistance against Individualism and Consumerism? What if our Faith communities were known as the centre for radical care and service for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities? What if, church, was known as a movement of people devoted to the tearing down of Empire, a community where the Divine Dream could be tasted on earth as it is in Heaven.

What if our communities did away with homelessness, because we were equipped to care for one another, without having to resort to people living on our streets? What if we ended poverty in our midst, because we organized ourselves in such a way, that we were able to share our resources with one another? What if we were known as the antidote to the suicide epidemic, because we formed communities of radical care and embrace.

You don’t have to consider yourself a Christian to dream this Dream, in fact, if you’ve got a taste of it, I’d encourage you to think of ways to live it out. How can we reshape our communities, in fact our very lives, so that we have room for each other? How do we create within us a corporate identity that adds balance to our dominate narrative of Individualism?

If we want change, these are the questions we need to wrestle with.

The solutions won’t be easy, and they will definitely cost us.

But, without reshaping our vision of what it means to be human in community, our people, our society, our world, will continue to suffer.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also a steering group member of Manaaki Rangatahi, a collective working to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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