On August 5, more than 50 people from as far afield as Invercargill, Oamaru, and Lawrence gathered at the Mercy Parish community centre in Dunedin South to discuss how to strengthen a sense of community.

Dunedin South has its share of challenges. Attendees heard about what one participant described as an oncoming “demographic tsunami” of an aging population.  Other stated challenges included:

Flat and wet geography with consequent threats of flooding from rising sea levels; Old and cold housing — without adequate insulation; Social isolation; Lack of access to amenities; Low educational attainment; Low incomes (less than $30,000 per annum per household).

Church agencies — including Catholic Social Services and local parishioners — are responding to the needs and rebuilding a sense of community.

The renewal of Dunedin South’s community is based on the simple recognition that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Everyone has a part to play.

Among the works currently underway are: Community lunches at which the Church regularly hosts more than 50 people at the Mercy Centre; Food distribution to those in need; Community garden care and management; Some skills training such as helping with food preparation and gaining certification in food handling.

Local people are also involved in helping the elderly with home maintenance such as insulation.

Community lunches also help to break down isolation and help to foster bonds of belonging. Paul Barham, a Catholic Social Services representative, told the workshop that “There is a huge mix of people at the lunches and it’s almost like we are sitting together under the big umbrella of God.”

Caritas director Julianne Hickey said that “a sense of community is vital for the
wellbeing and health of a society”.

“We have the benefits of technological advancement, economic growth and a wider range of choices but these appearances of wealth can mask a poverty of spirit. Pope Francis has expressed concern about the erosion of social cohesion. He said in 2015 that what we need is the sort of sustainable development that can enable all people to participate in society and to cultivate meaningful relationships with each other,” said Mrs Hickey.

Another participant, Fr Sani Lam (assistant priest at the Catholic Mercy Parish), said that communities are facing a prevalent culture of individualism and materialism. Consequently “people tend to focus on themselves and close their doors. They lose a sense of being connected to others — friends, neighbours and other people generally”.

To help counter this trend, the parish tries to encourage a greater sense of community.  “We encourage parishioners to go out and say hello to their neighbours. To connect with other people — especially their neighbours — and to get to know them,” said Fr Lam.

Elizabeth Schonwald, a youth group leader of St Francis Xavier parish, Mornington, Dunedin, said that “social justice is a component of our faith and it is very good to attend a workshop which reminds us of that”.

Elizabeth was also pleasantly surprised by the number of attendees at the Saturday morning workshop. “The numbers that have turned up today have been quite impressive.”

The workshop was organised by Mercy Parish, Dunedin Diocese and Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.

It was the first of the Caritas “Weaving Bonds of Belonging” Workshops being held as a prelude to Social Justice Week on 10-17 September.

Another one took place in Hamilton on August 12.

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