In our modern times the terms Community and Sense of Community are bandied about as if everyone knew instinctively what is meant by such word. We often connect these words with political or environment or education issues. There is talk about being involved in the community or working in the community by leaders and authors and talk show hosts. But all this talk about community makes me wonder, pricks my interest in understanding what all these people are talking about. Does working in a soup kitchen for a day constitute working for the community? Do I come to know these hungry people individually as individuals or am I simply handing out another bowl of soup indiscriminately? Or perhaps I attend the local city hall meetings on a regular basis and follow the agenda items so I can report back to some group of people what transpired. Does that develop a sense of community involvement? I may join a group of people that “adopt” a section of highway and pick up trash once a month. Is that community involvement?
My elementary school years were the fifties and the large town we lived in, Arlington, Texas, was still small enough that the various neighborhoods were isolated by distance. There were no freeways and only a few four lane roads. Our neighborhood elementary school wasn’t constructed in the first few years, My older brother and I had to ride the school bus to an over crowded school several miles north of our house. But by the time I was ready for third grade we had a brand new school. My mother attended the PTA meetings regularly for she was a homemaker. Back then the PTA had great influence in the community and over school matters. It became a rubber stamp for school districts and politicians to the point that it has become a useless organization. I learned about community by being in one where I was known. Downtown Arlington was where one went to have your car serviced or buy groceries. We had a movie theater, which is still there today looking much unchanged, and a civic auditorium, where I took lessons in drawing during the summer. But our neighborhood was its own tight knit community. Since most mothers stayed at home there was always someone observing the actions of children in the area. To the south and east were farms with pastures filled with cows and an occasional horse. My social set moved on bicycles and on foot to explore that world was out there. I never saw people watching us, never felt that I was being watch except when someone called my mother about some doubtful bit of behavior.
Now my mother had grown up in Hempstead, Texas on a small farm and the local high school had all of fifty seniors graduating the year she did. She grew up in that time when people looked out for one another. There was a depression and money was scarce. If you raised chickens, and most everyone did, you might give a few eggs each week to an elderly couple facing hard times. Neighbors did for each other without thought of payment. If another man’s house needed some roof repair you might if you had the skills lend him a hand. Of course when you grow up in a small farm community you usually acquire some useful skills to share with others. Welfare was unknown and charity was what the church did as a whole. But sharing what you had extra with others was not charity, it was cooperative effort in living, in getting through to better times. And that attitude carried through her life and into mine. I often saw more of it when I spent some of my summers on my aunt’s farm. I saw it cross the racial barrier from time to time. When you are working in the hot fields baling and hauling hay the color of a man’s skin has no importance.
My secondary school years were spent in the Philadelphia suburbs and taught me more about racism, selfishness, and meanness than any other place I have lived. I never again had that sense of community I had felt in Arlington. Perhaps the best feeling of good will I would take away from that area were the Saturdays us teenagers would spend in the poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia with others from the local church. We would paint and repair townhouses that the church had helped its members buy. Sometimes it was simply cleaning an apartment, repainting it, and then hauling a refrigerator up a set of steep stairs. The people we helped were either Porto Rican or black, members of the local church, and interesting in their own right. I listened to a few of their stories and I saw that they had created their own small and close knit community. I always felt that I had been invited to share a few hours in their lives.
A few years ago I bought a small and inexpensive village house in a small village in France. I spend a few months every year there and the first time I was there working on the interior my English neighbors came over and introduced themselves. Del and Elaine are very nice people to be around. I was invited to have coffee with them and when Del told me that they were receiving a load of firewood, about ten cords, I offered to come over and help them stack it. So the next day I arrived a little early and helped them. It took two days to trundle the wood to the back of his barn and stack it to a height of six feet, but we did it. They never had a neighbor, particularly a new neighbor, pitch in and do all the while declaiming it was no bother. And it wasn’t, for as I explained the matter to them it was what I had learned as a child. A couple of years ago Del fell down the stairs and broke his neck. They had to put some screws in the bone to repair it but he is not able to do any heavy work. So when it came time to take down the stone walls of an old shed, I did the work for him. True, I had my own house that needed work but let’s face it, there is nothing that needs my immediate attention. My sense of community is that I do for others what I can and let them do for me as they are able. It is that sense of cooperation upon which human behavior has been built. One can’t learn it playing video games or watching feel good movies. It’s not about charity or sharing for the less fortunate among us. It is a mutual agreement among individuals.