The first neighborhood my family lived in when we moved to Central Asia had two names, the formal name and the name everyone used. I first came upon the formal name when I learned to read the street signs (which everyone ignored). It was not a word I heard anyone using, nor was it a term every local was familiar with. Eventually, I found a friend who was able to translate it for me. Even then I realized that there was no direct English equivalent. This is true of many individual words when learning a new language – you can translate them with a descriptive phrase but not with an individual equivalent word. In fact, releasing the assumption that every word must have a direct translation is an important step in the language learning process.
The name of the neighborhood translated to something like “harvest collective.” It was a village term, hence some of my city friends not knowing it. The villages in our corner of Central Asia are wise enough to know that no household can handle harvest time all on their own. Or perhaps wise enough to know that even if they can, they really shouldn’t. So, there is a rotation, a harvest collective, when on an appointed day the whole village shows up in a specific household’s field in order to provide them with the needed manpower and motivation to gather in the crops.
I liked the concept as soon as I heard of it. It reminded me of our newborn days when I realized that my young wife and I really couldn’t handle that season of postpartum and exhaustion on our own – and yet the very way society around us was structured encouraged isolation and often prevented receiving help from extended family or community. I remembered when our oldest two were toddlers and the never-ending household work my wife struggled to get to unless another mom in our community group came over to lend a hand. Or more recently, as most of my peers have become home owners, hearing about the difficulty these dads are having in fixing up their homes on their own.
While healthy churches in the West and community group structures are providing an avenue for some of this kind of collective help to happen organically (and praise God for this), my sense is that more robust structure and schedule is needed in order to push back against the overwhelming isolating tendencies of life in the individualistic West. We may have good and godly intentions to help that struggling young mom or that busy working dad, but those intentions may need an actual structure in order to translate into reality. Or to provide the kind of help that is less a one-off and actually serves for the long-term.
The idea would be for healthy church communities to borrow some cultural wisdom and implement “harvest collective” structures, where they recognize the kinds of labor a household can’t or shouldn’t do alone, and seek to regularly share that labor together. For example, a group of six men from the same church agree to become a collective together. One Saturday a month they agree to all show up at one man’s house in order to help him make some solid headway on his repair or renovation projects. That would mean twice a year each man is receiving help from five other brothers. Even if only for one day, that kind of help could go a long way. Young moms struggling with loneliness, fatigue, and the never-ending needs at home could set up a collective where they are regularly showing up to help one another, helping with not only the labor but also with the discouragement so prevalent in that season.
Westerners faced with this idea might feel an internal objection along the lines of “but we’re supposed to be able to handle this stuff on our own.” Yes, that is the overwhelming message communicated by Western culture, one which we have ingested from our youth. And it comes with a quiet side of shame for those who wrestle with why they can’t seem to figure it out – which happens to be the majority. An honest look at the loneliness, overwork, and rates of depression in Western culture just might indicate that we have some structural problems that require creative structural solutions. Non-Westerners might respond with, “But that’s the job of the extended family.” Yes, the extended family has played this role in many parts of the world. Yet the world is rapidly urbanizing, and with that comes the breakdown of the extended family’s ability to provide the same kind help it has in the past. Even more important than this is the fact that the Church is supposed to be the household of God, the new extended family for those kicked out of theirs because of their faith – or for those raised in a culture in which only a shell of the extended family remains. My Central Asian friends are the former. Many of my friends in the West are the latter. I would not be surprised if this kind of a group even lent the church an evangelistic power. “Wow, look at how those Christians take care of each other in the areas I feel so very alone in.”
The expressions may look very different than I have suggested here, but I believe the principle is sound. Like Central Asian villagers, believers would be wise to collectively serve one another in those kinds of labor which a single household can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to handle on its own. In societies that relentlessly drive towards an individualistic life, this will require intentional structures. And some humility to ask for help in ares the culture says we should be able to handle on our own.
After all, it’s not like the harvest collective in Central Asian culture has been there forever. At some point some exhausted farmer was probably sitting around drinking fermented yogurt water with his buddies and blurted out an honest confession that the harvest was simply too much for him and his kids to handle. At which point his fellow villagers must have come up with a wise plan. The kind of plan which just may be due for a revival of sorts.