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The Community We Need But May Not Want

On tractors, the homeless, and figuring out our new town

My family and I recently moved from a suburban neighborhood, near every convenience, to a small, out-of-the-way town. Our friends and family were encouraging, but we got more than a few “you’re moving where?” reactions. We are not in the middle of nowhere, but it feels like it – a feeling intensified by the numerous cotton fields, tractors used as transportation, shotguns sold at yard sales, signs advertising deer corn for sale, and slow drivers (even the ones not driving tractors).

On Main Street, a little coffee shop sits housed in an old antique store. There are books and tables galore, the coffee is strong, and everyone seems to know everyone. Connie, the owner of the shop, is an outspoken Christian, offering “a little bit of coffee and a whole lotta Jesus,” and it is not unusual to overhear her discussing specific prayer needs with the regulars.

People from varied walks of life – the businessman starting his commute into Charlotte, the former mill-worker whose job has been sent around the world, the mom who just dropped the kids off at school – come to this place, talk to each other, and are often welcomed by name.

On Monday evenings, Connie opens her coffee house to feed the homeless. Local churches help cook, then serve the meal, and lead services for attendees. When I first heard about the event, Soul Food, I was surprised. How many homeless people could there be in this little town? Isn’t homelessness just a “big city” problem? No.

The town once hummed with manufacturing and mill jobs, but both have been devastated by outsourcing. The rise in unemployment led, of course, to a rise in homelessness. But, it seems, the town has been walking through the hardship together.

Rod Dreher observes a similar phenomenon in the preface to his book, Crunchy Cons:

“In late summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. As the people of New Orleans waited for help from a bumbling government bureaucracy incapable of handling mass catastrophe, the city descended into anarchy and chaos. Just weeks later, another hurricane, Rita, annihilated much of coastal southwestern Louisiana. There, however, the small-town and rural Cajun people of southwestern Louisiana instantly pulled together. The difference? In Cajun country, the ties of family and community were much stronger than in New Orleans.”

Where there is genuine community, hardship is met corporately. Economic devastation is met with sacrificial giving and physical destruction is met with tools and lumber. This is because membership in a genuine community involves some understanding of the Gospel paradox that loving your neighbor as yourself is loving yourself.

That is a far cry from the modern conception of community, which seems to involve little more than the individual being affirmed in all of his idiosyncratic demands. When that doesn’t happen, he moves on to find more “genuine” community. In other words, community must not cost us anything – which is to say, we do not actually want community. We want our individualism affirmed by people who are already like us.

In a recent interview with Modern Farmer, Wendell Berry said, “The old way of neighborly work-swapping here involved much talk. Neighbors worked together, a matter of utmost practicality, with a needed economic result, but the day’s work was also a social occasion. Is this a ‘spiritual’ connection between neighbors, and between the neighborhood and its land? I suppose so, but only by being also a connection that is practical, economic, social, and pleasant. And affectionate.”

Having moved from a suburban neighborhood with a small lot, I was ill-equipped to handle the comparatively massive yard we now have. But, there I was, using my little push-mower to tame the grass when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my neighbor from two houses down, riding down the road on his orange yard tractor. I thought maybe he was just out for a drive, but he stopped and asked, “Want some help?” I have to admit that I didn’t want to accept help. I paused, hemmed, and hawed a bit, then gave a kind of half-answer, “Well, thanks. If you want to.” Mr. James just smiled and said, “Well, we are neighbors now.”

Later that day, I wondered why it was hard for me to accept help from my neighbor. I would prefer to think that I was trying to be responsible, not wanting to inconvenience anyone – any answer that boosts a sense of my own nobility would work. But, I think it was just pride.

I want to be surrounded by good neighbors, to have a strong community, to experience deep friendship, to give and receive genuine hospitality. I want to walk through life, arm-in-arm with family, friends, and neighbors, through good times and bad. I just have to get out of my own way.

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