Some years ago, 1979 to be exact, I lived in a small, predominantly white middle-class NJ community named New Providence. I taught at Kean College. My teenage daughter was attending boarding school in Vermont and coming home by train for the Thanksgiving holiday; I went to pick her up at the station in downtown Newark. With my nine-year-old daughter, Samantha, securely fastened to my hand, we climbed the stairs to the platform to await the train. Newark at the time was a city with a reputation for crime and violence, and I felt uncomfortable, if not afraid, among the throngs of train station denizens and the large number of African Americans departing and arriving on the trains. I clutched my daughter tightly as the train pulled into the station.
Debra arrived, dragging what looked like a dozen large duffle bags. I could only imagine that she had brought home everyone’s laundry, or every item she owned, for the weekend! I couldn’t imagine how I would get off the platform and downstairs to a trolley while securing my younger daughter, my purse, my teenager, and her mountain of duffle bags!
Just then a large, neatly dressed African American man came over and asked if I needed help. Holding my hand up as if to stop him, I said, “No thanks, we can manage.” I pulled both my daughter and my purse closer to me! But as I looked around, it was obvious that I couldn’t manage, so I turned back to him and said, “Please, yes, I do need some help.” Wordlessly, he proceeded to sweep up my nine-year-old, as well as most of the duffel bags, and headed down the stairs; Debra and I, closely on his heels, dragged the rest of her belongings.
As we descended the stairs, a woman and a couple of children were looking up, smiling and waving in our direction. The man helping me was grinning back, albeit unable to wave given all that he was carrying! Our small band reached the trolleys at the bottom of the stairs; he quickly unloaded his bundles and Samantha only to be crushed by his own family as they rushed to greet him. I called to him before he left and said “I don’t know how to thank you…” He turned momentarily from his reunion and replied, “Don’t thank me. Just pass it on.”
This story, “The Kindness of Strangers,” illustrates that pivotal transformative moment when we learn to trust—a necessary variable in building human community.
Building human community is a greater task today, as there will soon be a billion more people on our planet than there were just 12 years ago; then, the earth was home to six billion people, according to the United Nations, and back in the 1960s, it was only half that number—three billion. The concept of community is over-broad and thus problematic. It covers both groups and individuals bound by similar and dissimilar interests. It can contain ideas across a wide range of cultural entities. A “community” is a construct, an abstraction. Even as a member, we cannot see the entire community; we cannot touch it; and we cannot directly experience it. Like the words “hill” or “snowflake,” a community may come in one of many shapes, sizes, colors, and locations—no two of which are alike. A community has fuzzy boundaries; communities can exist within larger communities; all communities have a life cycle.
Building any kind of community is an organic and fluid process requiring certain materials to grow and develop. Remove them, and it will wither and die. It can happen in a moment, or it can take years…but one of its essential properties is trust! It is not a unique experience; we all have been faced with building community: the first day at a new school, moving to a new neighborhood, taking a new job, joining a military unit, and attending summer camp! Peter Block is quoted on YATOWN.com as stating, “We are in community each time we find a place where we belong,” Trust is a critical factor in belonging to and sustaining community; learning to trust, as in the story above, is a prerequisite.
In 2009, I taught at Eastern Kentucky University. That fall, the university hosted a Chautauqua lecture by a noted spelunker and biologist, Hazel Barton. Dr. Barton gave a talk called “Dark Life: From Cave Microbes to Astrobiology.” Her discussion of life in places with scarce resources, e.g., caves and asteroids, provided a fascinating metaphor for the construct of community. She learned from her research that as resources became scarcer, communities of specific species began to dwindle in number— almost to extinction, but not to extinction. Organisms that survived the die-off recombined into new multi-species communities, sharing if you will their unique survival skills so that these new integrated communities could prosper. Dr Barton put forward a metaphor for using diversity and cooperation to assure the survival of the human community. While organisms may not ‘trust,’ cooperation and unity are other essential properties for building and sustaining community.
The phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall” has been attributed to Aesop, the Greek slave and fable author who lived around 600 BC! It comes from his fable, “The Four Oxen and the Lion.” Perhaps you think instead of the famous revolutionary firebrand, Patrick Henry, rallying against the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In a great effort at the end of his life, Henry is quoted as saying, “Let us trust God and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions, which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.”
As individuals, as well as in groups, we can change our communities. We can set up neighborhoods and institutions in which people commit themselves to forming strong relationships and alliances with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. We can establish networks and coalitions in which people are knowledgeable about each other’s struggles and are willing to lend a hand. Together, we can do it.