I have attended several of the meetings of our Who Is My Neighbor program, which aims to bring together St. Thomas folks living near each other to get to know one another and look out for each other. Each of these gatherings has had its own character and its own energy, but what each has had in common is a sharing of stories of who we are and how we have found ourselves at St. Thomas in this time in our lives. I have loved the richness and variety of these stories. How wonderful it is to sit in someone’s living room and listen to the stories of our lives.
We don’t do enough listening to the stories of our lives these days. Too busy. Too driven. Too isolated. Things were different when I was a child growing up in a small West Virginia town in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. There was no air conditioning in those days, so folks sat out on their front porches from early spring to late autumn. Television hadn’t made much of a dent yet either. We children got together to make up games and ride bikes and occasionally get in a little trouble. The grownups visited each other on their porches and told stories, some of which were even true, and looked out for us and for each other. We were, after all, neighbors.
We’ve made a lot of progress since then. We have more devices, more entertainment, more cars, more stuff, bigger houses, more diverse ways to distract ourselves. But there has been a cost. I heard that cost expressed not long ago in an interview with Wendell Berry, farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, Christian. Mr. Berry farms a small plot of land in Port Royal, Kentucky, a farm that has been in his family for generations. From that vantage point, for the last 50 years or so, Mr. Berry has observed our culture’s “progress” and the price it has extracted from our collective souls. As I read the interview, I was struck by this comment:
“I don’t, on purpose, see much television, and my acquaintance with social media is at best secondhand. What I know is that when neighbors replace local stories with stories from television, and when they sit in the house and watch television instead of talking on front porches, a profound disintegration has taken place. And I know it is impossible to talk to somebody who is “telecommunicating” with somebody who is absent. The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. It may be useful in emergencies, useful to people who are sick and shut in, etc. But community is not made just by communication. ”
The diagnosis of a “profound disintegration” seems about right to me. This disintegration is expressed in the bitter polarization of our public discourse, in the coarsening of the arts and media, in the alienation of the generations from each other, in bullying in schools and workplaces. You have your own list, I am sure. We have way fewer neighbors than in years past, even though there are more of us.
I agree with something else Mr. Berry said. “Community is not made by just communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another.“ That’s why I have such great hopes for Who Is My Neighbor. We take what we learn about being a Christian community here at St. Thomas back to our neighborhoods in order to practice real Christian neighborliness there. Listening to each other. Watching out for each other. Helping when there’s trouble. Celebrating what needs to be celebrated. Loving each other in spite of ourselves. What we do for our neighbors today and next week and next year is a reflection of what happens in Heaven, I do believe. So I hope you will join in and find out who is my neighbor. Participate! You might get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let me leave you with one of Mr. Berry’s poems that has meant a lot to me lately.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
—Wendell Berry (2003)