The sun was setting as we wrapped up a delicious meal at a local park with some new family friends. A couple of the youngest daughters from the Ahmed family walked slowly by the side of my daughter, JoyAna, on her first attempt at riding a hoverboard. JoyAna’s body was shaking, her knees bent, as she leaned to and fro; tightening every muscle in her body with maximal concentration to stay balanced and prevent a wipeout. The challenge and novelty of it all was a source of intense joy for everyone.
This gathering at the park was our first time meeting the Ahmeds — a Syrian refugee family of two parents, eight children and an aunt. Throughout the evening, we navigated the language barrier with gestures and smiles and some technologically-assisted translation. By the end of the evening, my wife, Janice, with her knack for connecting with young people, found herself offering to give driving lessons to the Ahmed’s teenage daughter.
How did we ever find ourselves here, with people who wear headscarves and speak Turkish and whose culinary know-how includes cooking delicious, herb-flecked kebabs over an open fire?
Earlier this summer, the eldest Ahmed daughter was set to be married in Albany, New York. The family was having a hard time finding reliable, safe, affordable transportation for everyone attending the wedding. Our friends, who just happened to be the Ahmeds’ neighbors, reached out to members of our common good fund and requested help.
The common good fund consists of about 15 households that pool our money to circulate it towards a more just economy. We hope to foster a Christian imagination around finances and embody a way of God’s justice in our city.
It had become clear to many of us that we can neither think about nor respond to the intolerable injustices all around us faithfully without confronting the systems and powers inherent in our current economic logic: love of money, usury-dominant practices, reducing persons (sacred bearers of God’s image) to productive objects of labor, placing all else under the crushing weight of profit-maximization and all sorts of faceless and abstract consumption-oriented structures. We yearn to denounce what is not as it should be, and yet we don’t want to stop there. In order to also boldly announce through our way of life what Peter Maurin calls “a society where it is easier to be good,” we must reckon with our systematic and our household finances.
For us this includes the small step of creating this common good fund. We offer gifts of support and no-interest loans to stimulate an economy worthy of the human person, right where we are. This includes circulating money to individuals, communities, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and local businesses that seek to disrupt systems of racial injustice here in Durham, North Carolina, and/or whose economic activity promotes the dignity of all persons, the value of human community and our sacred interconnectedness with the Earth.We pool our funds in an attempt to both loosen our grip on the money we make and to connect our habits of spending, saving, investing and giving with the well-being of others. We submit to communal discernment through the joint work of identifying potential recipients of the funds with the hope that together we will grow an awareness of, and attention to, the daily and local ways our finances can bear witness to God’s life in the here and now.
For the last few years our group has been bringing in about a thousand dollars a month and circulating the funds a couple times a year. We also have an “urgent request” fund that holds a certain amount for us so we can be responsive to unexpected community needs as they arise. This is where the Ahmed family comes in. After hearing about the Ahmed family’s need for transportation to and from the wedding in New York, the “urgent request” fund was activated to rent an accessible, 12-passenger van and provide some gas for the long journey.
In all of this, we aim to cast a new vision of economic exchange that is relational at its core, and therefore have an eye towards the creative, connectional projects that bring together people and their labor, goods and services that otherwise wouldn’t be connected. We want friendship…even surprising friendship. Typical economic logic insists that money is our primary means of security, our gateway to comfort. Money, according to this logic, is mainly for hoarding away for some abstract future catastrophe to ensure the reigning of our self-reliance, or it is to be used simply to make more money. But we are discovering that money is for the common good. It is to be spent freely and thoughtfully, with love and justice at the heart. And money can even be a pathway for friendship. By grace we are seeing this happen.
The day following our evening gathering at the park, there was Janice — in the passenger seat of an unknown vehicle — teaching Zehra the English words for “turn signal” and “right of way” so that she would be prepared for her test to graduate from permit to license. The language difference guided them into a clunky, creative navigation of all sorts of nonverbal gestures and cues.
As Janice concluded the driving lesson with Zehra and headed to her car to return home, she was invited inside for food and some tea. The hospitality culminated in a presentation of the hoverboard for our family to borrow. The Ahmeds had noticed JoyAna’s delight with the toy the day before, and upon seeing Janice the next day, generously insisted she take it home for a couple days.
Driving lessons and borrowed hoverboards. These simple, ordinary expressions of a shared material life. These surprising places where, underneath difference, we unearth concordance. We are connected. We are all part of the common good. Praise God for encounters that illuminate this reality in bursts of eternal light.
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna and Elias “Eli,”and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House and Haiti’s Wings of Hope) and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.