The Common Good
August 2008

Making a New Heaven and Earth

by Molly Marsh | August 2008

Do it yourself—and also with others.

In our increasingly globalized world, many of us don’t need to know how to take apart a car engine or sew curtains. For those with means, it’s easier to pay someone else to do it. But more of us want to know such things, as the modern “Do It Yourself” movement suggests—and not just for the fun of it.

There’s a backlash afoot against the consume-and-dispose culture in which we’re drenched, the stream of products created by anonymous people from anonymous countries, and our increasing awareness that the things we buy and consume often come at the expense of others’ health, livelihoods, and human rights—not to mention the planet.

Make, a magazine dedicated to “celebrating the do-it-yourself spirit,” recently sponsored its third Maker Faire, a two-day event at the San Francisco fairgrounds to which some 500 engineers, doodlers, and dreamers brought their homemade inventions. About 65,000 people watched demonstrations of various projects—some useful, others not so much—and attended workshops on everything from beekeeping to how to make your own shoes. Web sites such as instructables.com, craftster.org, and doityourself. com also cater to those itching to get their hands dirty, as do numerous magazines and TV shows.

“It’s about having a deeper connection with the stuff around you, and through that with the people around you,” David Pescovitz, a research director at the Institute for the Future, told The New York Times.

Deepening those connections was also on the minds of those who attended the People Against Pover­ty and Apathy (PAPA) Fes­tival, a gathering inspired by Shane Clai­borne and others involved in the New Monastics movement. More than 1,000 participants brought their tents, cooking pots, guitars, and Bibles, but there was more to the long weekend than camping and worship. They also had more-practical pursuits in mind—like learning how to can vegetables and fix bikes and understanding the basics of sustainable building.

The festival-goers formed a community with its own rules—everyone signed on to a set of conditions called the “Village Agreement”—and its own currency. “PAPA Hours” could be earned in multiple ways and then traded for goods and services; hours spent cleaning out the composting toilets (“Pootown”) could be exchanged for a hand-knit poncho made by the neighbor in the next tent over. The aim was to form a larger version of the intentional communities in which many already participate, however briefly or imperfectly, where the benefits and burdens of daily life are dispersed and shared equally, and the goods and services exchanged come with faces and stories attached. It was all about relationality—economic as well as personal.

“People bring things they’ve made and want to share,” Will Samson, one of the festival’s organizers, told Sojourners. “We’re trying to make more normal this alternate way of living.” Participants often continue this bartering community long after the event has ended.

IT’S A PRACTICE Samson, who lives with his family and about 35 others in a 10-year-old community in Lexington, Kentucky, tries to live out at home. A “theology of place” is emerging among many 20- and 30somethings, he said, in which “staying is the new going.” Instead of traveling to faraway places to minister to and be in relationship with others, “Now we’re asking, ‘What does it mean to embed ourselves in a community and decide to find what we need there?’” Among other things, it means that in his urban neighborhood they learned to grow their own food. Last year he estimates that the garden provided about 5 percent of his family’s food, and he hopes to increase that yield this year.

Yet this “do it yourself” endeavor has ramifications for those outside his immediate circle. “The garden also provides an outlet for issues of justice,” he said. “We built a community garden in an area of racial tension, and planted seeds in the crazy belief that it will help ease some of that tension.”

Samson and others who fired up their cookstoves at PAPA Fest are well-versed in issues of trade justice and want to limit their participation in a system they see as unfair and unsustainable. For many, that means learning some of the basic skills their grandparents and parents knew, so that they’re not wholly passive consumers who are dependent upon forces outside their control for the daily goods and services.

As Christians, we haven’t yet entered the kingdom of heaven, but we can make and shape our earthly endeavors into something that more closely resembles its values. Perhaps that’s the ultimate DIY project.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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