“We need shared experiences with faces we recognize but whose names we don’t know…”

Several years ago, a longtime resident showed me some photographs of downtown Thomasville from the 1950s. The sidewalk was teeming with people. My thoughts went to Saturday shopping when families came into town to socialize and buy what they needed for the week. An online purchase from the privacy of one’s home was 50 years beyond anyone’s imagination.

Lately, I have been considering the many gathering spaces we once had in small cities.  They were like the water tower that rises above us near Main Street, visible and obvious, but we didn’t give them much thought. I grew up in a city of similar size to this one. The Feed and Seed was where men sat to talk about the weather and events of the day, the locally owned drug store doubled as a soda shop, and folks showed up for Friday night football at the home field whether they had kids in the high school or not.

I will have failed in my descriptions if I my words paint a Norman Rockwell image that never was. Segregated schools and neighborhoods were a blight on our society. That was a time when it was difficult to be a person out of the mainstream and find a place in society. I simply want to acknowledge a part of civic life that had great value, and which may be lost—a sense of communal living that goes hand in hand with a well-functioning democracy. As a whole, we have become lonelier and more alienated. I caution that our lives have become too insular and private.

My understanding of how to live in community began in public parts. Not unlike Thomasville, my city was dotted with twenty-acre green spaces built during built during the Great Depression as public work projects. They were parks large enough for a baseball field and a swimming pool, and close enough to my home that I could get there on my bicycle. This is where I learned to play by the rules and navigate the various personalities of our community, some of them rude and headstrong, and some of them a kind and welcome presence. As a sign of our times, most of the pools have since been filled in and the ball fields abandoned for fee driven little league clubs that pay coaches.

Parker Palmer speaks to what I am getting at in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. He takes a moment to reflect on busy sidewalks and life in the “company of strangers”:

The simple act of walking down a crowded sidewalk conveys a preconscious message that is key to democracy: it is possible for a large number of people, each of whom has a different goal, to get where they want to go without slamming into each other or shoving each other aside, planting the seeds of violence as they go. We simply need to learn the dance of public life—speeding up and slowing down, veering to the left and then right, until we have arrived at our destination safely and more or less on time.

The writer’s point is that a healthy democracy requires that strangers learn how navigate a common life. There is value in the town’s Christmas Parade, and Everybody’s Day, beyond commerce and fundraising.     We may want to shut ourselves out with our big screen TVs and backyard patios, but none of us actually lives alone. The quality of our local government and life together will rise and fall by the ease with which we make connections. We need shared experiences with faces we recognize but whose names we don’t know.

This month, Memorial United Methodist hosted two such shared experiences—events that proved to be great successes. The first was Pancake Day, our Shrove Tuesday celebration, and the second was Empty Bowls.  The funds raised for hunger and homeless ministries were record setting, and our attendance hit a high mark as well. It is to that second part that I write.

That we didn’t know most of the people who came through our doors and sat at our tables, to eat and chat and stay a while, is a good thing. That we were white and black, of little means and well-to-do, professionals and working class, is a subtle way to build a common life in a nation deeply divided by ideology. A strong democracy necessitates that we bump elbows and socialize.

With our sidewalks empty and storefronts darkened we need more communal spaces to gather. It is heartwarming to see that the city’s big rock church has taken on the task.