The Power of Accumulated Smallness

November 2, 2021
By Dirk Ficca

In 1989, as the Berlin Wall came down, this piece of graffiti was found pasted across several cement slabs: “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”

This is where I’m placing my hope for the world; from the bottom up, in the accumulation of smallness. I do this recognizing the obvious need for responsible leadership reflected at the top, with nation states, international institutions, and global systems. People say that they have hope when a coalition of countries sign the Paris climate accords to lower greenhouse gases; when the United Nations reports on progress with their Millennium Development Goals; when Pope Francis makes history in visiting Iran. There is indeed something hopeful in all of that.

Still, I tend to look for hope at the other end of the spectrum: when mosques in a local Islamic association in Cairo choose to install more efficient light bulbs; when a teacher in Afghanistan opens an underground school for girls in the face of cultural hostility to their education; when an Anglican priest in Uganda confronts the religious stigma associated with AIDS by sharing that he’s HIV positive from a blood transfusion. There is something profoundly hopeful in all of this as well.

If you had a magic wand?

When it comes to refugees and migrants in Europe, the Church of Sweden has chosen to be as close to the action as possible in its A World of Neighbours initiative. This means supporting receiving communities and grassroots practitioners who are accompanying ‘people on the movement’ in their journey to safe haven, while at the same time convincing the broader society to be more welcoming of these newly-arrived in their midst. It means fostering a movement that, to be truly effective, cannot be highly structured or centrally controlled. Instead, it must be a movement guided by a shared vision, a compelling mission, and a hands-on approach.

A movement made up of people, so convinced in heart and mind.

This need to be bottom-up has taken on renewed urgency since seven million refugee fled the civil war in Syria in 2015. At a working group meeting on migration policy in Berlin in 2019, representatives of high level institutions – the UN High Commission on Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and European Economic and Social Committee – were asked a question: If you could wave a magic wand, and change the most crucial policies in Europe, what changes would they make?

People meeting around a table.
Working group on migration policies in Berlin in 2019.

While acknowledging the importance of constructive policy, there was a perhaps surprising consensus around the table. Unless there is a willingness in the society to receive refugees and welcome them into the community, it doesn’t much matter what the policies are. It finally comes down to the social realities on the ground. Furthermore, these wonks added, the prospects for changing policy substantially for the better most often begins at the grassroots.

In a welcoming society, the essential relationships are ultimately all local: person-to-person, citizens and newcomers, religious communities in cooperation with social service agencies, civil society organizations collaborating with municipal departments. At the same time, the activities necessary for resettlement all have a practical and labor-intensive character. It is one asylum seeker, one displaced family at a time, finding a place to live, learning the language, navigating the bureaucracies, securing employment. And, if then, all of this is to lead to the realization of convivenz – of living together – it has to be humanizing and mutually transformative for all concerned, both receiving and received.

“In a welcoming society, the essential relationships are ultimately all local.”

As an UNHCR official put:  “We can provide tents, blankets, food, medical care and a temporary existence for refugees and migrants.  We cannot provide friendship, community, a sense of belonging, the experience and promise of living together. It is only receiving communities that can do that. And most often, receiving communities are religious in character.”

When it comes to hope for ‘people on the move’, the niche in the ‘ecology of welcoming’ that A World of Neighbours has chosen to occupy is this: in the powerfully altering accumulation of many smallnesses – of people, of what they are doing, and of where they are doing it.