Community Capacity Building in Arkos, Transylvania
Since 1993, the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) has encouraged and supported partnerships between United States and Canadian Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist congregations and Unitarian and Universalist congregations in other parts of the world. Originally founded to focus and coordinate partnerships between North American Unitarian Universalist congregations and Unitarian churches in Central Europe following the collapse of communism in December 1989, the UUPCC now supports almost 200 partnerships between North American congregations and congregations in Transylvania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Khasi Hills of India, the Philippines, Poland, and Nigeria.
Over time, the UUPCC observed that money created tension between some North American congregations and their partners. A blue-ribbon panel researched the question, interviewing partner congregations in North America and abroad. They concluded that giving money as part of a partnership almost always leads to problems, because donations are sometimes inappropriate for the recipient congregation's or village's needs and because the gift can set an unhealthy dynamic between the donor congregation and recipient congregation which impedes reciprocal learning and sharing, the mark of true partnership.
In 2004, the UUPCC launched a new model of partnership patterned on a model developed by Dr. Richard Ford at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Billed as "capacity, not charity," the model aims to provide partnership support that gives each community the power to forge its own future and to leverage its own resources to alleviate poverty. A key element of the program includes trained guidance that helps a community organize information, identify community problems and potential solutions, identify and mobilize resources, and create and complete action plans.
There are wonderful success stories in this new relationship-based approach. One comes from Arkos, Transylvania, a village whose Unitarian congregation is partnered with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Texas.
Curious, but wary, the villagers or Arkos came to a facilitated meeting arranged by Rev. Szekely Janos, the minister of the Unitarian church. An outsider trained by the congregation's North American partner was going to facilitate a conversation about the town's problems and possible solutions. Coming together for such a meeting was an extraordinary act for the people of Arkos. Under the communist government that ruled their country for more than four decades, voluntary association was discouraged. Fear of being reported by a neighbor squashed all thoughts of working together for the betterment of the village community. This gathering proved a brand new beginning for all.
Villagers sat on benches as the meeting began, prepared to listen to someone else tell them what the problems were and what could be done. Quickly they learned that no one was going to tell them what they needed. It was up to them to identify the most pressing problems in their community, to explore possible solutions, and to create and follow through on action plans.
It did not take long for villagers to agree that clean water—water delivery and a sanitation system—was their most pressing need. They worked together to create a plan to tap into the water and sanitation systems of a nearby city. When they sought outside help, leaders in the newly formed water committee were equipped with a solid, village-created plan, broad community agreement, and the moral support of their partner congregation in Houston, Texas. The leaders succeeded in securing nearly $1 million in grants from European Union sources to build excellent water and sanitations systems. The cost to the Houston partner church for its support of Arkos' effort was under $1,000.
The partnership model did more than help Arkos acquire needed water systems. It built local leaders' capacity to help themselves. When young adults in the village wanted a shorter term, more manageable way to contribute to solving the village's problems, they empowered themselves to organize an annual clean-up of the local streams. Removing old tires and other trash from the streams immediately made the water cleaner, even while the grant process for the larger project was underway. In addition, people in the village reactivated a local festival that had not been held in many years, and used the festival to showcase local arts and traditions. They improved space for their school and for a day care facility. They are solving the problem of how to conduct a traditional funeral while still honoring modern health codes by building a funeral house in the center of town near the Unitarian church. Arkos is a village alive and empowered, a village with the capacity to help itself—and the Unitarians of Arkos are credited by their village with making the transformation possible. The partnership between the Unitarians of Arkos, Transylvania, and the Unitarian Universalists of Houston, Texas, grounded in respectful partnership, is bearing wonderful fruit.