Villages and Compost Heaps

The last chapter of the book, The Growth of Love, is entitled “Villages and Compost Heaps”, and in this column I would like to come back to this theme once again. For the record I last wrote an In Residence column on the subject in June 2002 (It Takes a Village to Raise a Child).

The Growth of Love (Abingdon: BRF, 2008) revolves around five themes: Security, Boundaries, Significance, Community and Creativity. These are the crucial elements in creating an environment in which love can grow: that is, where love can be given and received. You will find the themes appearing all through the literature of child and human development and psychology, often using different names. (Erikson uses “trust” for example, where the book uses “security”; others use “self-worth” or “identity” instead of “significance” and so on.)

Over the past week-end I have been leading a church retreat at a conference centre on the East coast of England, and the leaders of this church asked me to take The Growth of Love as the overriding theme or framework of the two days that we spent together. There were between 80 and 90 people present, of all ages, and from several different backgrounds and cultures. As a relative outsider to the congregation I was able to get a sense of how far the church functioned as a village (by this I mean a community that surrounds a child, not necessarily an actual village, with a name and to be found on a map).

During the retreat there was an incident that epitomized much of what I had been trying to identify and describe in the book. It was like this: I was sitting in a bay window of the library talking with the person who was running the children’s stream of the week-end programme. We were discussing ideas for the final morning and how to bring the streams together in the last all-age hour of the event. She was showing me one or two of the children’s books that she had been using, and was enthusing over some of the illustrations.

A little girl sidled up to her, holding a children’s Bible. Without invitation or question she lifted herself up on to the arm-chair in which my colleague was sitting. She snuggled up close and it was not long before they were reading the Creation story together. Quietly I got up from my chair and bade them farewell and went for a swim on a beautiful late afternoon, with a golden setting sun, and under a clear sky.

At the next meal I saw the little girl sitting at a table together with her brother and parents, and in passing commented to the mother and father that I had not realised they were related to the person leading the children’s strand of the programme. (My assumption was that she was the grandmother of the girl.) They told me that not only were they not related, but that they came from another country, and English was their second language.

All at once it dawned on me that I was privileged to be part of a village in operation. My colleague was not the grandmother of the little girl in that they were biologically related. But the two of them were so comfortable in each other’s company, and the parents were so confident about their relationship, that something very close to grand-parenting was going on. And this was exactly my argument in the book: we have confused parenting with parenthood. In a village a child has many who are parenting (or grand-parenting), while having just two actual parents and probably up to two grand-parents who are related by blood. Everyone in the village that it takes to raise a child has a role to play in her parenting, though her biological parents will have unique and special roles and relationships.

As I say this was the incident that summed everything up. Once I had seen it, there were instances and examples everywhere I looked. On Saturday afternoon there was a group painting stones outside in the afternoon sun and it was like a little household with people of different ages completely relaxed in each other’s company. Others strolled by on their way to and from the beach. On Sunday morning there were eight groups during the final session made up by cross-cutting the actual families and peer groups (so they were designed to be all-age), and the little ones fully welcomed, respected and listened to. In one group it seemed as if the youngest child was more than once the focal point of attention: she was bright, confident and relaxed. In all the groups there were activities in which each member participated, and it was clear to me (as I observed them carefully) that most of the groups were functioning as effective households or families.

A bonfire on the beach; an evening of games; an act of worship; meal-times: these were all characterised by a similar dynamic and spirit. And what I was seeing before my very eyes was The Growth of Love in action. The five characteristics of the book were clearly present. There was an underlying sense of security (trust) on which the whole event was based; boundaries were apparent and internalised; people felt significant as individuals irrespective of culture, gender, age or ability; there was palpable evidence that people belonged to a community that they valued; and because of this as well as inspiring it was real creativity (fun, purposeful activity in making and shaping things, role plays, and humour).

For a variety of reasons, much of social life in contemporary society is stratified by age, wealth, religion, class without physical proximity bringing people together: take education, a universal institution, for example. And in real villages the forces and ideologies that shape contemporary groups and relationships, are undermining social belonging and solidarity (many are holiday or dormitory villages). So where are communities that are so vital to the growth of love in and between people, to be found? It seemed to me when I wrote the book, and this has been confirmed often since, that in the UK, churches (partly for historical reasons as well as theology) are uniquely positioned to be catalysts for such community.

On reflection the week-end confirmed what I had been edging towards in my thinking and observation. This is not to claim that they are the only such groups, but they are based on a tradition, and a set of sacred texts that have at their heart the offer of love and grace to all people and peoples. As Christmas nears we are reminded that the first Christmas was announced as good news for all people, and with the promise of peace on earth (not a part of the earth or particular people).

This leaves the matter of compost heaps and where that image might fit in. It seems to me that a secret of a compost heap is that it is set within an appropriate framework, and consists of many and varied ingredients. How they interact and combine to form soil is, I am told, one of the most complicated of natural phenomena. The point is that it is an organic rather than a linear or programmed process.

And that is how it was over this week-end. There was a programme and we stuck to it, but as people shared their thoughts, feelings and stories with me it was obvious that something very deep and significant was going on within them and between them. This was not the product of sessions planned with specific learning objectives, but rather of appropriate space and dynamics.

What brought joy to my heart, was the way in which the children were so evidently happy and creative. They were welcomed and valued as fellow human beings in age-sensitive ways, typified by the little girl who felt free to come into the middle of a conversation and sit beside one of the adults. She had chosen well: both the adult and the book, the occasion and the chair.

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