My family and I lived in Dublin, Ireland for about 6 years assisting in the launch of a nonprofit initiative called Serve the City. While we observed many facets of Dublin’s urban challenges that were unique to Irish history and culture, we also knew that the broad categories – poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, crime, and so on – were common to large cities across the globe.
It was through those experiences with our Irish friends at Serve the City that we began to realize how important it was to meet urban challenges by fostering human connectedness in healthy, holistic ways. (Something I’ve written previously about HERE.) Prior to our time in Dublin, I had heard and read about Ubuntu on a theoretical level. While living and serving in Dublin, I began to see with my own eyes how vitally important it was to encourage Ubuntu on a practical level.
One of the people we had the privilege of serving on a number of occasions was a gentleman named Tony. His story serves as a powerful example of Ubuntu in action.
Tony had been actively involved in a number of community development initiatives in his neighborhood and was well-known by people in the community. However, due in part to a chronic and painful medical condition, his life had secretly spiraled down into alcoholism and despair.
When he hit rock bottom, Tony reached out to one of the community development nonprofits he had helped start (the Ballyfermot Social Intervention Initiative) and they assisted in getting him in to rehab. Shortly after this, they called on Serve the City to ask if we could mobilize volunteers to clean up his house while he was away.
When I arrived at Tony’s house with a small team of volunteers, we were surprised to find a large dumpster in the driveway that seemed big enough for an entire community clean up. As it turned out, the dumpster, as well as the wheelbarrows and shovels, would not be enough. Hazmat suits and professional exterminators would also be required.
After the rat infestation, the mice had taken over and were crawling in and out of broken windows on the ground level. For about four full days in a row, we did as much as we could to begin the process of making Tony’s home habitable again. It would take another team of volunteers, the exterminators, and a couple of other professional contractors to fully restore the home.
I had the immense privilege of meeting Tony face-to-face several months after our first cleanup effort. What struck me most about our conversation – and what has left an impression on me to this day – was his humble gratitude and appreciation of the people who were involved in restoring his home.
While that gratitude went out first to his friends at the Ballyfermot nonprofit, with whom he was closest, Tony also recognized the role each volunteer played and the lasting the impact that those hours of service had on his life. As he described it, “I was broken. And as my house was being restored, I hope these [volunteers] realize that, basically, they were rebuilding me… This has given me back my life.”
Today, Tony is back to being involved in his community and every so often, we have a fun interaction on Facebook (sometimes involving Irish humor, with a wink and a nod). I often think of him when I get a chance to talk to folks that ECM volunteers are serving here in Denver.
In the Barnum neighborhood, one of ECM’s volunteer project leaders reached out to her elderly neighbor across the street and learned that she had served the poor and marginalized for decades as a Catholic nun and, to this day, as a volunteer teacher in the inner city. ECM volunteers have come alongside this elderly woman several times to do yard work that would not otherwise get done. It’s been a phenomenal privilege for us to serve someone who has given a lifetime to serving others! What’s more, our project leader’s effort to connect with her elderly neighbor has rippled in to each life she now touches in that inner city school.
On a project day in July, one Globeville resident with MS, among other physical ailments, repeatedly told us that ECM volunteers had, “lifted the burden from my heart.” This lady, whom we’ll call “Mary,” informed us that her late father encouraged her not to accept favors from neighbors, lest they rope her in to neighborhood politics and manipulation. Through our conversation, I could see that the acts of kindness from ECM volunteers towards Mary seemed to be showing her that she could be more connected to her neighbors, but still avoid the social messiness her father warned her about.
Though the physical labor and seemingly banal tasks of mending a fence or clearing an overgrown yard, what animates ECM’s vision and mission is the knowledge that our intentional acts of kindness are more than simple tasks. Our volunteers are starting conversations and making social connections that create conditions for urban challenges to be addressed. We are embracing the idea that our humanity is inextricably bound up in the humanity of others.