Buy Nothing group offers a way to give, receive

Basilica members combine the beauty of Catholic tradition and the richness of Catholic social teaching 

By Claire Collins

The Bird family, inspired by a call from fellow Catholic friends around the country, have started a “Buy Nothing” group at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga. The idea is simple: meet the needs of those in your parish community through generosity and sharing.

Nathan Bird knew a voice was missing in his faith life, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Then he started listening to a podcast called “Tradistae.” The podcast combined the beauty of Catholic tradition and the richness of Catholic social teaching to inspire a greater participation in true Catholic social justice.

“It was the wild combination of radical Catholic social teaching, radical social justice, and radically traditional Catholicism,” Mr. Bird said.

Through a connection with the podcast’s founder, Sean Domencic, they then joined a group of likeminded Catholics called Catholic Social Action. Their intention was to dialogue and collaborate to bring about a greater participation in the practical aspects of Catholic social teaching.

It was the group’s co-founder, Tim Wainwright, who is now the executive director for the American Solidarity party, who proposed starting a Buy Nothing group in parishes.

“That was the lead-in to the Buy Nothing group. He had this idea and sent it out to everybody in the Slack channel,” Mr. Bird recounted.

“Catholic Social Action was trying to build this resource in each parish to have a Buy Nothing group for the purpose not just of helping one another out materially but undermining the idea that everything needs to be a transaction, that every time I need to get rid of a piece of old clothing or old furniture that I need to be ‘maximizing’ my profit from that and not leave any money on the table,” he added.

“Instead of focusing on the amount of money you’re getting out of this transaction,” Mr. Bird continued, “how about you build your parish community, build relationships with one another, and engage with this economy of gift?”

So, what exactly is a Buy Nothing group? According to the group’s website, “Buy Nothing offers people a way to give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a worldwide gift economy network in which the true wealth is the web of connections formed between people. We believe that communities are more resilient, sustainable, equitable, and joyful when they have functional gift economies.”

Buy Nothing bins are used for the exchange of goods between specified givers and receivers.

Practically speaking, members can post items and services they desire to give, share, and lend on the group’s Facebook page for other members to claim and receive. Members also can make requests and post needs they may have, to which other members may offer their free goods or services in response.

Mr. Bird’s wife, Katie, decided she wanted to make the Buy Nothing group happen at the basilica. She checked in with Father David Carter, rector of the basilica, who immediately approved of the idea, and started by creating a Facebook group.

“I still get multiple requests a week to join the group. It’s up to 372 members now,” Mrs. Bird said.

“It’s kind of ironic that the Internet, which has caused so much isolation and in some ways started to replace physical interactions and meeting between people, has also enabled bringing back those physical connections. We couldn’t have done this without the Internet.”

The group quickly took off in the parish and became such an important part of parish life that parishioner Tina Marx suggested a permanent bin be placed at the basilica to be used for the Buy Nothing group.

“I did provide the bin and was excited about the Buy Nothing group,” Mrs. Marx said. “Being a good steward of all we have and using material goods for as long as possible is one small way to be a good steward. There is also joy in sharing these items and learning someone loves something you once cherished or regretted buying.”

The Birds are just two of the many who have personally benefited from the Buy Nothing group’s existence.

“In the first few months, Nathan asked if anybody had an extra bike and an extra bike trailer. And someone said yes to both of those,” Mrs. Bird said.

“And it literally changed my life,” Mr. Bird added. “Dan Pacitti gave me a bike that had been sitting in his garage that is the nicest bike I’ve ever ridden, and now I ride it every day to work. It literally changed how I live because I asked for a free bike on the Buy Nothing group.”

When asked about gifting the bike, it was an easy decision for Mr. Pacitti.

“Usually when I see any request posted from the Buy Nothing group, I’ll spend at least 30-40 seconds thinking if that’s anything I have off the top off my head,” said Mr. Pacitti, a parishioner of Sts. Peter and Paul and director of RCIA for the parish.

“When I saw Nathan request a bike, I knew how much he favors the non-automobile way of life. My wife had inherited a couple of really nice road bicycles from her aunt and uncle, but given our stage of life at the moment we had no plans to utilize them. They were just gathering dust in the basement.

“I’d prefer someone to use an item and appreciate it,” Mr. Pacitti continued, “even if I myself cannot. You can’t hang onto ‘things,’ though, with just a vain hope of ‘someday.’ That doesn’t trump someone else who can realize a use for it immediately, all else being equal. So after discussing it with my wife, we had no qualms about providing the bike to Nathan.”

Nathan Bird prepares to ride his bike to work.

The Birds hope that the group not only continues to have success at Sts. Peter and Paul, but also that other parishes may be inspired to start Buy Nothing groups as well.

“I hope it continues to grow in a sustainable way,” Mrs. Bird said. “My other big goal is just to encourage the other parishes in town and in the diocese to start their own. I’ve talked to a lot of people in other parishes that say, ‘Oh that’s a great idea,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, you should start one in your parish!’ If it’s anywhere near as successful as this one has been, then it will have been worth it. . . . This is one very tangible way for parishioners, especially if they go to different Mass times and never encounter each other, to still help each other out.”

Mr. Bird also commented on his desire for Buy Nothing groups to bring parishioners together and open up doors for greater community.

“The bin is really convenient, and we use it a lot, but it does take away the personal encounter. It is nice to meet people and say, ‘Hi, I’m the person who’s giving this to you. You’re the person who asked for it, like, let’s talk for a minute, let’s chat and get to know one another,’” he remarked.

Beyond their merely offering up items that people are no longer using, the Birds hope that people will have the courage and humility to make their needs known through the group.

“I also hope people don’t feel awkward or bad for asking for things,” Mr. Bird said. “I think most of the traffic is generated by people saying, ‘Hi, I have this thing that I don’t need. Does anybody want it?’ Which is great. It’s a great way to keep things out of the dump; it’s a great way to keep things moving.”

“But I really hope people feel empowered to ask for things. And jog people’s memories and exercise that muscle both on the person who’s asking, the humility of asking, ‘Hey I need this thing, and I can’t spend a lot of money on it, can anybody help me out?’ and on the giver’s side flexing that muscle of, ‘Well, I have that thing, and maybe I was going to sell it on Facebook Marketplace, but now I have somebody who goes to my parish who I know who is asking for it for free.’”

The idea of bringing Buy Nothing to parishes is founded on the exercise of three fundamental keystones: solidarity, subsidiarity, and charity.

In terms of solidarity, the group seeks to bring together parish communities. “It means working together for a common purpose,” said Mrs. Bird.

The goal of subsidiarity is to allow citizens to accomplish what is in their power before submitting authority to a larger governing body. In regards to this keystone, Mrs. Bird explained, “This is an interaction in politics at the smallest level.”

But most obviously, the Buy Nothing group fosters an ability to be charitable and generous with one’s material goods. “I have this item, and maybe I wasn’t even thinking about selling it,” Mrs. Bird explained. “But do I use it enough to merit me holding onto it, or is it something that I can give away for the betterment of someone else who can use it better?”

“That’s one rule that I think I would enforce if it ever came to it,” added Mr. Bird. “You cannot buy or sell anything. Don’t start talking about prices, or we’ll take down the post.”

The Birds want to help anyone interested in starting a Buy Nothing group in their parish community. They can be reached through Facebook. In the meantime, you can find Mr. Bird riding his bike through St. Elmo in Chattanooga and continuing to live out the underlying principles of this small gift economy that is Buy Nothing.

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