The idea of understanding the needs of society's grass roots comes up frequently in Pope Francis's letter to the world, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. And here's a question I forgot to ask last week -- just who makes up these grass roots? Quite often they are the poor, the lower class, the voiceless, the people without power, until they organize around a cause and make their voices heard. They are the few at Site C who are protesting because of the value of the land that will be flooded, the species that will be displaced, loss of their agricultural livelihood, and creation of energy that will fuel the exploitation of more resources, creating more fossil fuel emissions and increased climate change.
The voices of those who make up grass roots movements need to be heard, and that theme continues in this week's reading of paragraphs 147-151 of Laudato Si, which can be accessed by clicking here and scrolling down. This week, though, we shift focus toward urban issues as we are start a new section called Ecology of Daily Life, which talks about quality of life for human beings, particularly in cities. Did you know that of the world's 7.4 billion people, 53% of us are city dwellers, and a full 80% of Canadians live in urban settings? You can find stats for other places by clicking here -- it's actually quite interesting.
Pope Francis and friends want to point out the importance of beauty, simplicity, and order in human life. Paragraph 147 notes that "We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic, or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy."
Even so, "An admirable creativity and generosity is shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations by alleviating the adverse effects of their surroundings and learning to orient their lives amid disorder and uncertainty." Paragraph 148 underlines the fact that even when our living situations are chaotic, "a commendable human ecology is practised by the poor in spite of numerous hardships" and human beings can find a sense of belonging and solidarity by working together to improve their surroundings in their homes and neighbourhoods.
I especially love the example of the people in the al-Zaitoun neighbourhood in Gaza:
These people are fairly well-off, but many of the neighbourhoods inhabited by the poor are "lacking harmony, open spaces, or the potential for integration" as noted in paragraph 149. Unfortunately, such places often attract a criminal element that aims to exploit the poor. Pope Francis and his encyclical writers are very aware of the fact that violence, drug culture and antisocial behaviour are often present in these situations, but the Pope says, "I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people in these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome."
Friends of mine took their family and lived in Ghana for several months, and experienced this first hand. There were no green spaces where the children could play -- they all played together in the streets of Accra, and everyone knew and looked out for each other.
By contrast, in our wide open spaces here in Canada, and here in Edmonton, urban planners have tried to find solutions to inner city problems by creating "integrated communities" where people of different social strata can live together... but they often meet seemingly insurmountable opposition from people who fear that their way of life will somehow be undermined by the presence of low-income housing, halfway houses or Housing First accommodations which give homeless people roofs over their heads and then deal with their social challenges. My question is -- how do we allay the fears of people who have never met the poor?
As a middle class person who once fit that category, but who now knows the homeless to be the salt of the earth in spite of their many challenges, I would love to see more integrated communities in my city and country. I suspect the only way to bring that about is to offer more people a chance to walk with our inner city brothers and sisters on a regular basis, to meet them and learn about their lives. On Good Friday, March 25th, the 36th annual Edmonton Outdoor Way of the Cross offers one such opportunity. You can learn more about it by clicking here or here. Many cities offer similar opportunities; it's just a matter of seeking them out through inner city agencies.
Paragraph 150 draws us back into the land of consulting with the grass roots when it says, "those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people's thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design."
Conservation also needs to be a part of what we strive for in our communities. In paragraph 151, we see that it is important to preserve those parts of a landscape which help to create our sense of belonging as human beings. Elements that create cohesion are important because they unite us, toppling the belief that we are all strangers and preventing us from creating "us vs. them" neighbourhoods. Natural areas that create a sense of well-being help us to realize that we belong to the great "we," that we are all one family. If we understand Jesus at all, we know that he came to knock down our divisions and to remind us that every one of us is an equally beloved child of God.
Just imagine if our communities could reflect this fact! In the week ahead, let's focus on the idea that really, the grass roots of any society is made up of people who are all equally beloved of God, and that we should all be working together to create a lifestyle that reflects the beloved-ness of every human being, all 7.4 billion of us. How might that understanding change our society and our world? Would terrorist organizations have any reason to be so hateful, or would love prove more powerful, as Pope Francis says?
How can we create a sense of equality and beloved-ness for everyone we meet, regardless of their place in society?
Up next: #30... Respect for home