There’s an ancient African word, “Ubutnu,” that is described in English as, “I am because we are.” Isn’t that beautiful? I am because we are. What a powerful way to explain the importance of community.
According to the General Social Survey, today in America we have the lowest level of community involvement in our nation’s history. People are spending just as much time with their close friends and family, but people do not want to get involved in things outside of their new homes and are generally not interested in making new friends. Some of this is likely due to COVID-19 restrictions and social isolation protocols, but I think part of this is due to our society and culture putting so much focus on the “self.” Slogans and sayings like, “Treat yourself,” or “Have it your way,” only reinforce this. While it is absolutely imperative that we care for ourselves and make sure we aren’t running ourselves into the ground, we lose so much when we close ourselves off to our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
During the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, otherwise known as “The-Time-That-Must-Not-Be- Named,” my family got more than stir crazy. We got snippy with one other, rude in our comments and, if I’m being honest, pretty self-centered on our own wants and feelings. It was hard to think about the outside world when all we were seeing and experiencing was inside the walls of our home. My husband and I decided that we needed to do something to re-center our focus. One night while our children were asleep, we went up into the attic, got down all of our Christmas decorations and decorated the inside of our house for Christmas. When the kids woke up that morning, they woke up to a Christmas wonderland. It was so special! We baked cookies and watched Christmas movies, but then we talked to our kids about the reason we did all of this. We recognized that during Christmas it seems we put so much emphasis on giving and serving one another and that doing so spreads joy. So, because we felt so focused on ourselves and the world sure needed more joy, we decided to make handmade “Christmas in April” cards stuffed with a local coffee shop gift card and place them in the mailboxes of many of our neighbors. And, wouldn’t you know it, our kids had bigger smiles on their faces going through our neighborhood giving gifts to others than they did when they woke up to a surprise Christmas tree in their living room!
My husband and I work to teach our kids that it is our responsibility to share what we have with others and to use our privilege to not only notice others who are in need, but to move to real action to fulfill those needs. Many times when we think of volunteering or serving, we think it has to be something huge like flying across the world to a place we have never heard of, but in reality–there are numerous ways we can serve in our own local communities. Our family went to Belize on a mission trip and we were able to immerse ourselves in their community as we made friends, went fishing with the neighborhood kids, and filled needs when requested. Our family is still in touch with some of these incredible people! But, our family has also walked through the aisles of our local Target to purchase toys and books for Afghan refugee children who have been resettled here in the Oklahoma City Metro. We’ve worked in food pantries, bought groceries and cooked meals and mailed encouraging cards, and you know what? Not one of those has been more significant, meaningful, or important than the other.
Did you know that there are many places around the world where child care and retirement centers are not a part of their culture because it is just understood that people will take care of one another? When we serve as a family, we teach our children from a young age that not only is giving to others important, but that we are not in this life alone. We are made to be in community, to support one another, to give when we have excess, and to pay attention to those who do not have enough. If one of us suffers, we all suffer. If one of us is lacking, we are all lacking.
May this crazy season of life bring opportunities for you and your family to turn your gaze outward and to ensure others have enough.
“I am because we are.”
Aly Shahan is the Associate Director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at Oklahoma State University, mother of two and wife to a United Methodist pastor. She is passionate about building community through vulnerability, honesty, encouragement and laughter. Follow Aly on Instagram: @AlyShahan1, or check out her blog: alyeshahan.wordpress.com
*Find ways to volunteer locally as a family here.