Part of a thriving parish community is the parishioners’ sense of responsibility for one another’s material and spiritual needs.
But in many parishes, there are few clear avenues either for parishioners to ask for help or to offer assistance.
At Sts. Peter and Paul Basilica in Chattanooga, Tennessee, however, a parish “Buy Nothing” group offers a tangible way for parishioners to support each other.
The Buy Nothing Project is a global (secular) movement of local gift economies begun by friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark in 2013. Largely conducted via Facebook groups — though there is also a Buy Nothing app — members of a local Buy Nothing group can post items to give away, as well as ask for items that they need.
The organization currently boasts 7.5 million members in 128,000 local community groups around the world. The groups are often neighborhood-based, but can also center around a school or other community.
Givers and giftees coordinate the exchange of items, which can range from baby clothes to furniture to surplus basil from a member’s herb garden. The idea is not only to reduce waste by finding new homes for old items, but also to foster community and a sense of abundance.
Husband and wife Nathan and Katie Bird started a Buy Nothing Facebook group for the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in February 2021. They first saw the idea floated in an online community focused on Catholic social teaching, and the couple agreed that it seemed like a natural fit for a parish community.
“There’s definitely something special about doing it on a parish level,” Katie told The Pillar. “We know in theory that we are a community — a community of believers, united by our faith — but it can sometimes be hard to feel tangibly linked to our fellow parishioners, especially those who attend a different Mass time or who are in a very different stage of life or who we maybe just don’t have much in common with.”
At least once a day, someone posts an item to give away or a request for something they need. The group currently has over 400 members, about a quarter the number of the parish’s weekend Mass-goers.
“It’s a pretty good cross-section of the parish, I would say,” Nathan noted. “We’ve got people of all ages, we’ve got single people, we’ve got families.”
Fr. David Carter, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, told The Pillar that the group has strengthened the spirit of charity within their community.
“We are more attentive to each other’s needs and also attentive to the goods that we have available to share,” he observed.
“The greatest thing about the group is that it networks people who have with those who need and completes the circle of charity in a very easy and convenient way.”
‘At the mercy of somebody else’s charity’
Gifts can span quite a range of items.
“There are a lot of young families at Sts. Peter and Paul, so there are obviously lots of children’s clothes, baby items, furniture, the usual,” said Katie. “But we’ve seen everything from a never-been-worn wedding dress to fresh produce and eggs. I think someone offered some beef liver one time.”
Finding new homes for items that would otherwise have gone unused or been thrown away is one advantage of Buy Nothing groups — as Nathan put it, the group facilitates “living out Laudato si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on caring for the environment.
But he hopes members not only offer items to give away, but ask for what they need.
“The thing that I have really been trying to encourage is not just, ‘Hey, just get rid of your extra stuff,’ but I’ve really been trying to encourage people to ask for things, to move into that headspace of not just giving things away that you don’t need, that you’re no longer attached to, but to ask for things, to put yourself in that position of being at the mercy of somebody else’s charity,” said Nathan.
Nathan has been on the receiving end of the group’s generosity himself. Shortly after forming the group, he asked for a bike.
“It was one of those moments where I just kind of put myself at the mercy of the group and said, ‘Hey, does anybody have a bike that they don’t want? Thank you in advance,’” he recounted.
“And my friend said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this bike I inherited from my in-laws. I’m not riding it; it’s yours.’”
Now Nathan rides his bike to work. “It’s just been such a blessing,” he said.
Katie hopes that the culture of the group will grow even more extravagant in its generosity.
“I pray that parishioners abandon all fear of appearing too bold in their requests and their offerings,” she said.
“Along with the tangible items that pass through the group, I’d love to see more posts along the lines of, ‘Can anyone help me with some yard work this weekend? I’ve gotten really behind.’ Or, ‘My husband and I want to be more intentional about date nights and have no family in town to help out with the kids. Looking for another couple to trade babysitting with once a month.’ Or, ‘I attend the 9 a.m. Mass every Sunday and drive from the east side of town. Let me know if you ever need a ride.’”
‘Little logistical headaches’
The effort has not been without hiccups. For one, the Sts. Peter and Paul group spans a larger geographical area than a typical neighborhood Buy Nothing group, which can make picking up or dropping off items difficult.
“We have parishioners living up to, and maybe beyond, an hour’s drive away in pretty much every direction,” said Katie. “If you don’t attend the same Mass time as someone else, it can be really tricky to figure out a meeting time and place.”
Their solution is to use a bin located at the parish for exchanges.
“I hate that it removes the need for face-to-face interaction, but it’s a bit of a necessity in our case,” she said.
The bin can also attract items that parishioners simply want to discard.
“One challenge is to ensure that the location that is designated for people to exchange the goods does not become simply a dumping ground for people’s unwanted items,” said Fr. Carter.
“There must be an emphasis that, if you want to just simply do spring cleaning, it is better taken to a non-profit dedicated to thrift stores…I would always want to make clear that the Buy Nothing group exchange is always for wanted things, not unwanted things.”
Maintaining the Facebook group has had its own learning curve. At the start, the Birds were too lenient with the group’s membership settings.
“We ended up with quite a few bots and a few people who joined despite living across the country,” said Katie.
Now, would-be members have to state how they are connected to the parish in order to join, which has helped maintain the integrity of the group.
Since then, moderating the group — that is, approving new members and ensuring that current ones are following the group rules — has not been a big lift, said Nathan.
“I’m on Facebook, just wasting time, and then I get a notification that hey, somebody has asked to join the group. Or hey, somebody posted something in the group,” said Nathan. “If I had to quantify it — I mean, it’s no more than half an hour a week.”
Not everyone has a Facebook account, however, and Katie wonders if another platform could be more inclusive.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to move away from Facebook and base the communications on a different platform, but we don’t have a great answer for that right now,” she said. “I know there are parishioners without a Facebook account who will get friends to post something for them, but I’m sure there are some who could benefit but are slipping through the cracks.”
Overall, the couple was surprised by how quickly the effort got off the ground. Within a few weeks of advertising it in the bulletin, the group had over 100 members. Mostly it has grown by word of mouth, and its members continue to be active.
The Birds suggested that the idea could be duplicated in other parishes, as long as the creators have the patience to address practical challenges that arise, particularly early on.
“It’s a simple enough idea that I think parishes can kind of take it and run with it and have it grow in accordance with the culture of their city and the culture of their parish,” said Nathan.
“Prepare for a tsunami of generosity and lots of little logistical headaches,” Katie advised.
Passing on blessings
The Buy Nothing Project has hundreds of groups in the U.S. alone, and Katie emphasized that a parish group need not be a replacement for joining a local neighborhood group.
Theirs is the only parish-based group they know of, but it’s not the only Catholic Buy Nothing group.
In the Washington, D.C. area, local resident Christina (Gillam) Lê has started a group for Catholic-specific items.
“So many Catholic items are blessed, and it can be really a conundrum when people have given you your 1,000th blessed rosary or holy card and you’re like, ‘Okay, I need to downsize,’” she told The Pillar.
The group, which Lê formed in August 2022, typically sees about one or two posts per week, which is less active than she would like it to be.
Still, it has been a place of meaningful exchange, including for Lê herself. She received a statue of a Vietnamese rendering of Mary from another group member, significant to her because her husband is from Vietnam.
“That little statue has blessed me, and it’s probably gonna live on my home altar for the rest of my life,” she said.
Lê is not interested in building community in the D.C. group, mainly because it feels secondary to her purpose.
“I want to keep the mission simple, right? I want to keep it individual-focused,” she said. “Like, I found an item that blessed me; I passed off an item that blessed someone else.”
For Katie, part of the joy in the Buy Nothing group at Sts. Peter and Paul is to see how it enlivens the already-existing parish.
“Can we build a thriving community based on vulnerability and charity rather than the assumption that our every need can be met through a monetary transaction?” reflected Katie.
“Let’s find out.”
This article is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.