There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. St Paul, in a letter to the church in the city of Corinth.
A friend called the other day to talk about how they could get engaged in all the fantastic change happening around us in light of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and reform of the police and legal systems. I sensed their urgency to be involved in helpful and relevant ways, but I also sensed frustration about how to actually do it.
Two thoughts came to mind as we talked. The first was that efforts to work on the kinds of change they desire require community. The second was that they require a diversity of community gifts.
One of the greatest American sociologists of our era, James Coleman, defined and developed the concept of social capital. Drawing on theory related to physical and human capital, Coleman described social capital as a productive good that could improve people’s lives. Specifically, Coleman defined social capital as the variety of relationships existing in a community that allow actions that would be difficult or impossible in their absence.
These relationships are not mere transactions worked out to achieve a community-wide benefit—I do this, so you do that. Instead, this ability to do things that benefit people comes through the formation and maintenance of social relationships. It is organic, not transactional.
In social capital terms, community is a gift we give one another to do things we could never hope to do alone.
My friend had already discovered the power of community in the initiatives in which they are engaging. They had, in other words, found the gift of community.
But they still struggled with their particular place within that community. What should they do? Where should they place their efforts? Could they make any difference?
Many people ask me similar questions in these days. Most have already discovered a powerful affinity group that is advancing essential activities. Still, those same people struggle to know what they should do within those groups to help make a difference.
In reflecting with my friend, and many others, I urge them to consider the other part of community: that each person in it brings their unique gifts to the service of the whole.
In the Christian tradition, there is a lengthy passage in a letter written by Paul that describes how God gives gifts to a community for the common good. Paul likens the community to a body—not everyone is an arm, or a mouth, or the head. A physical body could not function that way. In the same way, what would it benefit a community if all the gifts were the same? It is a useful image that explains how social capital works out in practice: each person bringing that unique thing they can contribute to the group to help solve a particular challenge.
Like a body, in bringing all our gifts together, we find a complete organism. Paul goes further and suggests that some of the less “seemly” or weaker bodily functions deserve special honor and that no part dare show disdain for another simply because it is not like itself.
Recently, I have been amazed to see and benefit from the diversity of gifts in my community. The organizers, the communicators, the facilitators, the “discerners,” the note takers and distributors, the ralliers, the truth-tellers, the questionners, and the list of gifts goes on. We genuinely do have a fantastic array of gifted people here.
I encouraged my friend to think of their gifts and consider how they could offer them to the groups they are a part of.
It always surprises me how people often do not think of the gifts they have and how they might bring them to a new endeavor. Maybe that is because our gifts are things that are so natural to us that we do not perceive them as unique and needed at all–almost like we assume that anyone can do them. After all, they are so easy for us.
But they are unique, and our community, which itself is a gift, needs our gifts.