There’s a South African philosophy called Ubuntu that was famously embraced by human rights heroes like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. It essentially says this: We can only be fully human through the humanity of others. Tutu himself put it this way: “My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.”
In the midst of the brutal context of the struggle to end apartheid and all its dehumanizing devastation, Ubuntu was their chosen solution. It was the foundational posture of their subversive, history-making resistance. It represented a refusal to return the violence being doled out onto an entire race of people and instead, to choose to see the shared humanity in the oppressor. Whereas, “separateness” had been the destructive law of the land, a full embrace of human “connectedness” – Ubuntu – was the only thing that could restore it.
It’s one of the most profound examples in history of how beauty can arise from the ugly ashes of oppression and go on to inspire hope for future generations.
A few weeks ago, as I listened to the stories of residents in the Elyria neighborhood where ECM volunteers were serving, I began to notice a common thread in each of those conversations. Everyone I spoke with, touched on a shared desire to be more deeply connected to their neighbors. And yet, each one also expressed a preferential tendency to keep to themselves and, more or less, mind their own business.
I was struck by the tension between these two opposing forces. On the one hand, a longing for communal connectedness with others. On the other hand, a proclivity toward isolated individualism. Ubuntu, it seemed, was struggling to break through.
I asked two local residents, “How would you feel if someone moved in to the neighborhood and came knocking on your door to introduce themselves as a new member of the community?” Both residents said they would be delighted to meet these new neighbors and to offer any help settling in. When I flipped the question and asked, “How likely are you to walk across the street to meet a neighbor for the first time,” it made for a bit of an awkward moment as each person shifted nervously, explaining that they really were not comfortable with it.
Of course, this was by no means an abnormal response. One would expect to get a general consensus of the same from residents all across metro Denver, whether in the urban core or outlying suburbs. (In fact, one could argue that suburbs are generally developed to help people not have to connect with others and to make it easy to embrace isolationism and “keep to themselves.”)
Having said that, one of the most significant things that happens during ECM work days is when volunteers help neighbors connect to one another. It can happen with a walk across the street to ask a neighbor about borrowing a rake or a wheelbarrow. It can happen when a resident who is being served gets invited to lunch with the volunteers and finds something in common with another neighbor from down the street, whom they otherwise would not have engaged with. These moments become pivotal opportunities for human connectedness in which the hope of Ubuntu can begin to ripple across the community.
Those ripples continue when volunteers drive away at the end of a work day with sore muscles and faces lit up with thoughtful smiles as they ask themselves, “What could I do to better connect with my own neighbors? Do I even know the names of my neighbors, much less their stories?”
Every ECM work day is an opportunity to spark Ubuntu and bring hope-filled transformation to both the communities we serve and the volunteers we mobilize. As news headlines in the U.S. and around the world consistently demonstrate, we still have so much to learn from the examples of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Ubuntu, it seems, is still struggling to break through. ECM’s intention is to facilitate those breakthroughs, one block at a time.
Will you join us?
~Brandon, ECM Communications Team