Why, why are we divided? That is the question of the day. Politicians are asking it, educators are asking it, and of course our commentators are examining it. But I'm noticing that the places that would usually knit us together and weave us stronger are increasingly empty and abandoned.
Remember the joy of downtown? The special trip to tromp through the department store (always in my mind the Dayton's store). Through the perfume department, up the elevator to the eighth floor and you were in magic scenes created to delight and create memories. Pippi, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Nutcracker. Our city gathered; we created corporate memory. We were happy together, no matter who we voted for.
But our downtowns now struggle, our malls are increasingly empty, and quaint retail streets and hubs are being abandoned.
Community is made by memory.
For Christians or those of other faith communities, something else has diminished. Having worked in a church, my favorite personal quote was, "Church is not a fluffy cloud." It is flawed, the church has done wrong, it is made up of people. But the church also works for the least of us, provides a venue for volunteering and, honestly, when your life takes a serious wrong turn of illness or disaster, it is there for you.
It is there in the form of faith leaders trained to deal with trauma and congregation members and lay workers trained to accompany people on their life journey. As has been well documented, most churches are not growing, and many people declare themselves as "nones" or having no particular faith community.
Community can be made by regularly seeing people and supporting them on their life and faith journey.
I love movies, especially the popcorn, the chocolate-covered raisins, the dim, dark room where you laugh and gasp and cry with other people, mostly people you do not know and will never see again. But there is the experience of doing something together, seeing other people's fictional lives on screen; like reading, I think it helps develop empathy. It is easier these days to watch these same movies at home, alone, isolated.
Community demands shared experience.
College, for a small-town girl, going two hours' drive away to a rural college was a big deal. We lived together, learned together, ate in the same dining room, did slightly risky things together, made music and art and science together. We went through tough things together, the loss of grandparents, the illness of parents, the knowledge that our abilities had limits and there are oh, so many people in the world who know more and have more talent than we do.
In college or any postsecondary experience, we are mentored by adults who are not our parents. Like the caring professor who one day noticed my demeanor and simply asked, "Are you OK?" I don't know that I described the angsty college reasons I was not OK, but simply having her ask helped me turn the corner toward growth. Learning together, from those other than our parents, provides opportunity for growth.
Our colleges are struggling to attract and retain students during the shift in demographics and post-COVID disillusionment.
The places that would usually bring us into contact and conversation with those not like ourselves are struggling. What will take their place? Where will we be placed in close proximity with those not like us, if not the mall, downtown, the department store, the faith hubs, the colleges? I don't have the answer.
In some ways, this essay is a thank-you to all those community circles. They lit a path for me. What will light the path for today's young people? I hope anyone reading this will take time during this season of light to consider the question.
Kris Potter lives in South Haven, Minn.