An increasing mass of people agree that long term human survival depends on us replacing the status quo with a fundamentally different set of behaviours and structures. I believe the root of that challenge is essentially cultural, and the best place to grow culture is in small groups. And until we’ve got a critical mass of activists that are embedded in a new way of thinking, relating and communicating, any mass movement is going to replicate the errors of the past.

So says Richard D. Bartlett in a thought provoking (for me, at least) article as the Vincentian Family considers its future and the globalization of the Vincentian Charism. Will we become a “movement”?

Bartlett suggests, in analyzing the trend towards national movements in the United States of America, that there is significant human development to be done before we try to build large movements. He suggests that there are five reasons to postpone this development and focus on small groups. It reminded me of Vincent’s desire to see virtues embedded in every branch of the Vincentian Family. Simplicity, Humility, Meekness, Mortification, Zeal for Souls: values that show up in real interpersonal behaviors. Maybe that’s why he preferred lived experience before the writing of a rule.

Bartlett points to working on lacks in ourselves, and suggests that small groups (conferences, local houses, intentional communities, campus ministries, academic departments, administrative office teams) are the only place this work can happen. For Bartlett, a small group is

Reason 1: A Place to Learn New Habits. I can root out embedded “isms” and bigotries. Says Bartlett, “It was only once I found small, committed groups to work in, that I learned to unpick the patriarchy from my masculinity.”

Reason 2: A Place to Practice Tolerance. In an age that is sometimes harsh and unforgiving, “When you work in a small, committed group, you have an opportunity to prove to each other that you’re all fairly decent human beings, all trying your hardest, all willing to get better educated and to be more considerate with your language… and still occasionally say a stupid thing that hurts people.”

Reason 3: A Place for Amateur Therapy. It’s a place to grow. “We remind each other to be careful with ourselves and with others. In our little groups we practice showing up, messing up, forgiving each other and going on together.”

Reason 4: A Place to Produce Living Proof. It’s like a twenty year old Frédéric Ozanam understanding that small scale charity was the laboratory for proving coherent faith could encircle France in a network of charity. “…we also are learning how to connect the small groups together and grow our self-governance practices to accommodate the next order of magnitude.”

Reason 5: A Place to Prepare for the Worst. We can learn to tolerate failure, adn realize that “effective charity” is not charity that is effective, it’s charity that is docile to the will of God! What if the world ends before we’ve completed the goal of ending street homelessness? “From time to time I ask myself, if we’re approaching Apocalypse, what it is the best use of my time? I keep coming back to the same answer: learn how to work together, and learn how to grow commons.”

Have a read of “5 Reasons to Build a Network of Small Groups, Rather than a Mass Movement of Individuals” and ponder.

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