July 28, 2022

And to think it all happened on Frances Street!

Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path.” “Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity.
Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor and look upon him with a bright and friendly face.”

Do you remember the derecho? Just a few hundred metres from the St. Laurent transit hub is a bungalow that, like most of the homes in the eastern part of Overbrook, was cut off from power for seven days. It had already become something of a neighbourhood hotspot, hosting planning meetings for community development and marshalling junior youth and children’s classes – including the two little fellows who direct Safiya and Samuel Benoit’s usual routine.

Because of their existing network of neighbourhood families and friends, it was natural for the “Benoit Bhavan” [home] to become a local hub. A near-neighbour in a home that hadn’t lost power offered service as a charging station. However, it was what took place, over six long days, in the Benoit backyard/play centre/outdoor classroom that was especially wonderful.

By the second day of the outage, three friends with Indian ties “got excited about building a village stove,” Sam laughed, of the kind found in rural India. A brick rectangle was assembled, into whose open end were fed lengths of wood trimmed from cedar hedges. The word was quickly spread: if you have frozen food that you can contribute to a neighbourhood pot before it spoils, come on over!

It was an amazing sight. Friends from homes with power were able to contribute some hot dishes (and on one hot day, a couple of tubs of ice cream disappeared quickly, too!) But mainly, existing and fresh connections from across the street and around the corner united to feed, befriend and support one another. During the period of powerlessness, dozens of mums and dads and kids and buddies spent much of the day together, sharing tea and talk, snacks and songs, meals and learning (and more tea!). People came to better understand the ideas and convictions behind the junior youth and children’s education happening on their block, not to mention keeping the lucky pot of what’s in there now? boiling. Meanwhile, other power-free homes had water heaters that kept working, so the Benoit boys got to have bath-time in several neighbourhood tubs.

As a result of the storm, this chunk of Overbrook was at the forefront of building vibrant communities even before the Global Conferences, open to all, touched down in Ottawa. At least one new JY group, attracted by the energy and the eats, was formed more or less as a direct result of the communal efforts on Frances Street, as was a new circle of neighbourhood women studying Reflections on the Life of the Spirit. An ever-more friendly group of mothers found that they and their children loved being unplugged, with the time to talk and a growing eagerness to share notions of how spirit, and practical community betterment, walk hand in hand.

The “Frances Street Gathering” also resulted in several new friends making their way to the global conference, or to the Donald Street project’s amazing neighbourhood conference in early July. At the first of these, Overbrook’s Pamella Mubeza offered her perspective on this sweet street-level response to the destructive force of the derecho. She said,

“Most of us had no electricity for exactly seven days. But instead of suffering, we thrived. Over that time, at least 68 neighbours gathered around that stove to share our food, coming from 26 households. Something happened! We saw a tight community where everyone wanted to help, where children could play without being glued to their screens, sing prayers, and they even spontaneously developed a sense of order.

We adults rediscovered the joy of being together and supporting each other. It was not easy to wash clothes by hand and dry them outside, to constantly watch the pot on the flame, but you had to see the bright eyes of the mothers present. You had to see people making ice cubes and meals to distribute or sharing bathrooms to access hot water. We were simply thinking of the other.”

A different sort of wind, steady and constructive, continues to blow along Frances, Prince Albert, Queen Mary Streets and beyond, a community-building process unfolding in real time. Who knows where it will lead? And who knows who will play increasingly leading roles as this grassroots drama unfolds?

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