Mutual Aid: Three Tips and a Template for Helping Neighbors Help Neighbors

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By Bethany Ringdal

Back in March, when the COVID-19 crisis was just getting underway, I remember feeling frustrated. I wasn’t just stuck in my house; I was also stuck morally. As a Christian, I know that when my neighbors are suffering, I am called to join Jesus in caring for them. But how? Most organizations’ volunteer opportunities are unsafe, and my privilege means that most people in my immediate circle are managing alright. How would I even go about meeting people in need of my aid? 

I started to see secular friends using the phrase “mutual aid” and got busy learning. What I found is a way of thinking about care that closely reflects the kingdom of God. In the words of Rebekah Solnit, mutual aid is “a network of people cooperating to meet each others’ wants and share each others’ wealth”. By joining in mutual aid, I am offering my neighbors not just my time and care, but also the respect of allowing them to help me when I am in need. 

I learned about mutual aid from secular sources, but I see in this bundle of pragmatic strategy and idealistic philosophy a true reflection of the gospel. Scripture teaches us that each person is created in God’s image, a full subject with gifts to share, and not simply an object of charity. Jesus honored the gift of the poor widow as having great value and created space for the tax-collector Zacheus to redistribute his ill-gotten wealth. But Jesus didn’t just teach about neighborliness; he incarnated it, choosing solidarity with human struggle over charity from afar. The church began as a community where all shared and none had need. Even today, many church communities excel at the art of mutual aid within their ranks—just think about the casseroles delivered to a family in hard times. This is the church’s wheelhouse, and there’s no time like the present to turn these gifts towards our neighbors.

I’ve begun reaching out to neighbors to build towards a network of mutual aid. Even in this time of physical distancing, this practice  is helping me to discover the kindness of neighbors who just weeks ago were strangers. I’m collecting phone numbers, learning which neighbors need regular check-ins, and building a sense of trust. I am dreaming of a day when, on my block, no one feels alone even when they are socially distant. 

As a beginning practitioner of mutual aid organizing in my own neighborhood, I have gathered a few tips I’d like to pass on. And, in the spirit of sharing, you’ll find a template at the end for organizing the gifts and needs you encounter. 

Get Connected.

I bet that there is already mutual aid happening in your community. There might be some formal mutual aid organizing already going on; there are several searchable maps and databases that list networks already active. If not, think about the informal networks by which people are already supporting each other. Who in your congregation keeps tabs on their neighbors or looks in on the elderly? Consider neighborhood social media groups, and touch base with community leaders to see how you can join forces. I met a local tutoring organization which has pivoted towards mutual aid and together we built an online form for neighbors to share their needs and resources.

Start Small

Mutual aid is by definition mutual; it’s different from charity. Efficiency has its place; what’s more important here is trust and relationship. Where do you already have some trust built up? With a school? A network of local churches? The library or block club? Start there. Or begin by dropping a little note at the doors of your immediate neighbors.  Even a small group of caring neighbors getting connected can have a big impact in trying times. 

Stay Organic and Accessible

It’s tempting to try to build a big system with professional features, but the effort of mutual aid—much like the practices of faith—belongs to all of us. Don’t steal it from the people! You may start with nothing more than a group chat over text or social media. As things grow, however, you may find it helpful to have some way of matching needs with resources. Some networks use a simple online form and have volunteers connect those submitting needs with those submitting offers of help. Even more simple is an editable spreadsheet where neighbors can connect directly with neighbors. Whatever way you go, think about keeping the technology accessible and whether language will be a barrier for some neighbors. 

A Template to Start 

There are many variations floating around the internet of the spreadsheet system mentioned above; here is a place to start.

God is already at work among our neighbors. I trust that as we go looking for it, as we seek to join it, we will be blessed by the goodness of our neighbors, by the joy of offering care, and by the God who made us to belong to each other. 

Photo by Free-Photos–242387

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