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Focolare Movement’s ‘Culture of Giving’

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November 3, 2011 by Steven Worden

By Steven Worden

It’s around this time of year, when a chill wind begins to scatter the leaves across the fields, that we begin to think about building a fire in the fireplace, sitting around the hearth and nursing a cup of hot apple cider with the family. That homey image lies at the heart of a fascinating social movement:  “Focolare,” which is Italian for “hearth.” Focolare takes, to our minds, the extreme position that human existence, including economics, should take place in a context similar to a companionable family gathered around the warmth of a hearth or a fireplace.

At a time when Whirlpool suddenly announces the laying off of a thousand workers in Fort Smith, at a time when Wall Street stocks rebound while national unemployment remains frozen at over 9 percent, and European countries struggle to cover the generous benefits promised to an aging population, we find it difficult to believe that there could be any other way other than that of callous corporations or clumsy bureaucracies. Focolare insists that there is, that what we have now is, simply a failure of imagination.

Focolare, started by an Italian woman, Chiara Lubich, in 1943, holds that our current economic woes involve only one facet of a global crisis involving economic recession, social inequality, environmental destruction and political instability. Widespread fraud, financial dice-rolling, real estate bubble-puffing, rapacious environmental destruction, and police and demonstrators fighting in the streets might not be so rampant in a culture that possessed even a minimal ethical grounding. And therein lies the root of our problems:  we have all lost our mutual respect and love for each other. 

In contrast, Focolare wants to build on the closeness of family and friends and ​​expand the basis of solidarity and mutual respect found in the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the daily focus of Focolare centers.

A typical local Focolare center takes the form of small communities of five to eight people who make a life-long commitment to work for the movement. Members of this family-like group work at regular jobs but share all of their possessions in common. According to Lorna Gold, “Focolare children are encouraged to live simply, avoid unnecessary attachment to material goods, and above all, to think of others before themselves. At least once a year, people who live in Focolare groups are encouraged to make a “bundle” out of all the things that they consider to be no longer necessary. This bundle is then shared with the local community.”

Some of these centers may come together to form a “model town,” or a close-knit community that is largely self-supporting with its own businesses. Over 800 Focolare businesses have now taken root around the world. There are now some 780 centers and 33 model towns scattered throughout the world. Based upon the ideals of love and mutual respect, they exist as brightly shining micro-alternatives to the social and economic model associated with the global business culture. In a Focolare business, for example, the profits are divided into thirds. One-third goes back to investors, one-third goes to reinvest in the business, and the last one-third goes to help the poor. In this manner, the Focolare movement attempts to be a “germ-cell” of a “culture of giving.” It is cultural transformation starting from the hearth, the home, and shining out to the neighborhood and the larger society.

Of course, such a radical departure from conventional economics must have some inspirational source. It does. Chiara Lubich based her economic vision in the belief in the love of God, the “inspiring spark.” She believed that the ​​spiritual and the economic dimensions of life are intrinsically bound together and the giving to the poor was an expression of the spiritual arising from the social and the economic. Cynics may ridicule this “romantic” intermediate form positioned between profit-driven businesses and large governmental institutions, but it now has over 87,000 members and about five million adherents of various faiths in 182 nations. This might be something to muse upon as we sit around the fireplace on these cool autumn evenings, staring into the flames.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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