I am a Ph.D student in economics at Ohio State but I do not live the average life of a graduate student. I certainly do not live in the normal graduate student part of town. I live in a neighborhood that is among the poorest in Columbus, Franklinton. It has astoundingly high unemployment and about a fourth of the houses are boarded up. I moved here last April. I moved here to live amongst the poor, help the poor, and to live a simple life. I moved here to join in the work of an organization called Franklinton Gardens which runs a small urban farm in this low-income neighborhood. Last summer, before classes started, I spent my days working on the farm and getting to know my neighbors. It was a very simple life and it was immersed in a community that most people would hate to live in. This has been a powerful experience for me in many ways. One of the ways is that I have grown in my appreciation for the message of Distributism and the Catholic way of life. I have learned these through seeing the aspects of community that exist here and I believe that it would be of tremendous benefit to the Church if all Catholics learned from this neighborhood.
First I have to admit that Franklinton has many problems, as one would expect. There is a relatively high crime rate, some gang activity, entitlement mentality, drug abuse, high unwed fertility rate, etc. The economy is very bad and most of the economic activity carries money out of the neighborhood. Most people rent their houses and the owners live outside the neighborhood in the nice suburbs and rarely take care of their properties. All the local businesses and corner stores are owned by out-of-towners so the money leaves with them. The list goes on. But despite all of its flaws there is a refreshing amount of life here. Life that inspires me.
When I walk out my front door in Franklinton and walk down the street I encounter person after person, neighbor after neighbor. People are on their porches and neighbors are walking down the sidewalk to meet up with other neighbors. The streets are often filled with children playing. Every time I leave the house I am bombarded with neighbor kids who want to play. In the year that I have spent here I already know far more of my neighbors than I knew in the neighborhood where I grew up for 22 years. There is a reality of community here. My next door neighbor is constantly looking out for me and giving me advice about staying safe in this less than safe neighborhood. Beyond the interpersonal community, the close proximity of resources gives this neighborhood an added dynamic. Many of the people in this neighborhood walk to and from their jobs or to and from the bus stops where they catch the bus to work. Many of my neighbors do all of their shopping at the many local corner stores right there in the neighborhood that they can easily walk to. My neighbors have access to fresh vegetables every day in the summer at the market that Franklinton Gardens has set up. They have access to community meals several days a week at local churches and Christian ministries. They can walk or bike to several different churches and some of the churches even come out of their buildings to celebrate their services in the neighborhood itself or put on open festivals. My particular neighborhood even has a thriving Catholic hospital and nursing college.
I have been in and driven through many suburbs in my life but none of them have been like this. They are often barren, lifeless places. You might see an occasional person watering their lawn or someone jogging. But mostly they are quiet and impersonal. Few children playing and few people outside. Certainly no streets filled with people sitting on their front porches talking to each other while their children are playing. People are often trapped under the oppression of their TV’s and video games. Or people are away from homes busy with other things. Their houses can be miles away from the nearest place to shop or do activities so everyone has to drive everywhere. Walking isn’t an option. And it seems like the richer the neighborhood gets, the drier and more lifeless the neighborhood becomes. The bigger the houses are, the bigger the yards are, the less community there is.
I have come to question the idea that I am supposed to help this neighborhood. Unto what end am I to help them? Is my goal to help these people become like middle class society or to turn their neighborhood into a middle class neighborhood? I no longer think that. This neighborhood has turned my perspective upside down just like Christ does. I would never wish the riches of a middle class American existence on my neighbors. Instead, I think certain elements of this neighborhood need to help the Catholic Community.
A new and strong Catholic subculture is beginning to emerge out of the dust of the last few decades. Positive trends are being seen in the quality and quantity of seminarians and in new lay movements like EWTN and Campus/youth ministries. This growing subculture is promising and yet it needs more. The growing Catholic subculture needs to build authentic and rich communities. As we seek to strengthen Catholic families we also need to strengthen communities of families that can continually support each other. We need neighbors. Catholic families need to raise their children around other Catholic families where their children can play freely with each other. When I am in Franklinton and I see children playing on my street and rows of houses with people sitting on their front porches talking to one another, I see community.
I look at Franklinton and I have a vision of a Catholic Community. Imagine if the Church, in a very tangible way, was right outside the front door. Imagine if families could walk to the homes of other families, share meals together, help each other in times of need and be immediately available to them. It could be like the communities in movies where everyone knows one another and you are bound to see a fellow parishioner walking down the street every time you are outside. Imagine a community where children could play freely in the streets with the children of other Catholic families. Such a neighborhood where the temptation to be either inside with our luxuries or away from home was over powered by the draw to go out and experience life with neighbors. Imagine being within walking distance of a parish so that when the church bells ring out, families emerge from their homes and begin walking together to mass. We need actual communities of neighbors living a life that surrounds the liturgy and their parish. We need the kind of neighborhoods where a Eucharistic procession could go right down the middle of the street on a Sunday morning.
What I see in Franklinton also makes me think that it would be easier to see Distributism take root in a neighborhood like this. The neighborhood has small businesses and business space easily within walking distance. If families lived in a community like this and owned a local business or took advantage of the open spaces to open new businesses, this could really be a thriving and family focused economy. Franklinton is filled with corner stores and it is where most people do their shopping. Once again, if these stores were owned by families in the neighborhood and their shelves were stocked with fresh healthy food, this community could have a thriving local food culture and families could walk to do their grocery shopping. Franklinton is filled with empty and unused lots that could be converted to produce large quantities of food so that the community has its own internal source of fresh food. If the houses were owned by their inhabitants or the properties were well maintained and owned by people in the neighborhood, once again their economy could be revitalized because all of the housing money would no longer be leaving the community. This neighborhood could be a thriving Distributist economy on top of the communal nature I have already described above.
It would be very possible to build a Catholic community like this. Families could move into a neighborhood like mine and begin the long process of revitalizing it and evangelizing its neighbors. I have had a lot of success evangelizing here already. Families could also find smaller communities in the country or in small towns that would also fit these characteristics. Catholics should band together with other Catholics and be intentional about where and how they live. We need Catholics to choose to live near each other and near their parish. We need Catholics to choose fellowship with other Catholics over the many frills that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. We need Catholics to choose lives of simplicity and community over material prosperity and individualism.
My final point is this. Catholicism is fundamentally communal. Catholicism has always thrived in communities that evangelized the entire culture in which they existed. Today, Catholic culture has faded into the backdrop of secular society and now shows few characteristics distinguishing it from the rest of society. Our great institutions are hardly recognizable now. However, as a strong and orthodox subculture emerges to reclaim the truth and beauty of the faith, we need to take seriously the need for community life. In community we will thrive and we will be able to re-evangelize.