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Y2K gateway to community

When disaster strikes, good preparation often spells the difference between total catastrophe and lots of smaller, separate problems, all of which can be addressed and solved. A good plan under wise leadership can avert the deeper crisis lurking beneath the storm, the fire or the flood -- which is a breakdown of community and the chaos that follows.

It is thus in the preservation -- perhaps even the strengthening -- of our sense of community that the Y2K phenomenon, the subject of this week’s cover story, poses its most crucial challenge.

Y2K is unique among potential disasters. It may be all hype and no substance, in which case every voice that cried alarm will be responsible for what fear inflicts on the fragile social compact made all the more vulnerable by our dependency on computers.

But not to address even the chance that temporary system failures could cast us into darkness when all our chips and gadgets crash would be irresponsible as well. The media especially bears an enormous responsibility to provide reliable information on Y2K issues and not to dramatize or commercialize people’s anxieties.

As we enter 1999, Y2K is amazingly still a breaking story. Any informal survey suggests that things are probably not as bad as people fear but not as good as we’d like to believe. Government agencies and corporations say they will be prepared, but evidence is that they got a late start and that the chip replacement process is taking longer and costing more than anyone anticipated.

If there are short-term but widespread disruptions of basic services, they will likely occur as the coming calendar and fiscal years kick in. We should know in a few months if we are looking at some devilish poetic justice for our high-tech excesses or if we can expect business as usual into the next millennium.

A faith perspective invites us to another possibility -- that just being prudent in preparing for the worst might lead us to some deeper insights about the proper role of our local churches.

In the event of any real crisis, will churches even be recognized as natural gathering places, centers for help and leadership? Will churches be the places where people turn to instinctively to find security, food, shelter and some sense of solidarity? Providing such support would be daunting but not impossible for an alert parish team.

But even aside from the logistics of crisis management, what if Christian churches were at least prepared in terms of the gospel story of the loaves and fishes? What if churches and faith groups collaborated to send the message that if people share with everyone what they have set aside for themselves, this will be miracle enough to insure that everyone is OK?

Imagine such a parish-wide theme offered in homilies and other catechetical programs, then activated in time of need: “Don’t be afraid, there is enough for everyone.” All by itself this message could be a powerful balm for people likely to be increasingly apprehensive as the fateful date approaches.

Churches that already have small Christian communities now operating within the parish have a head start toward tightening up the whole network of relationships within neighborhoods and across cities.

If disruption is protracted and citywide, imagine the opportunity if all churches, mosques and synagogues agree to head off any “enclave” mentality or conflict between the different areas of town. The poorest neighborhoods are likely to be hardest hit, and communities open to sharing will benefit from inner-city skills in facing adversity. Many churches have already lived through the “end of the world” on a regular basis.

Imagine what middle-class churchgoers might learn about urban survival from those homeless people who are regulars at the parish soup kitchen. Those who have experienced major system failures before know how to live without basic amenities.

What hope and wonder lies hidden in the thought that Y2K may someday be remembered not as a disaster but as the moment we became the communities of faith and love we have always professed to be.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999