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February 24, 2016

Life-Enriching Community Spirit

There is no doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has -- Margaret Mead

by Eugene Hemrick

The principles of friendship teach us how to bond with one another as individuals. The lessons derived from community spirit in this chapter take us a step further, teaching us how to bond collectively as a group.

I was brought up in a wonderful family, played ball with friends in the neighborhood, and spent twelve years with classmates in the seminary. As much as my life has been lived in communities, it wasn't until I joined the fire department that I truly comprehended the essence of community spirit.

Work on the fire department began when my first pastor walked into my study with a word of advice, "Put the books down for a minute and get out there and learn about our town! It contains our people. Get to know them!"

At that time, the assistant priest with whom I lived was assigned to another parish. As he departed he handed me his fire helmet and said, "The job is yours now!" The next thing I knew, I was riding the back of a fire truck that was racing through town. As I quickly learned, being a fireman was perfect for knowing our town.

My dad, who was a Chicago fireman, taught me a number of important skills for fighting fires. Hence, when I joined the fire department I knew what to predict. What I didn't anticipate is the depths to which it would take me in understanding community spirit.

Our volunteer firemen consisted of shopkeepers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, auto mechanics, undertakers and postal workers. Aristotle once said, "The best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class." I learned quickly that middle class men with whom I worked were the backbone of the community of which Aristotle speaks.

It has been noted, "Teamwork is less me and more we." The more we worked together, the clearer it became that teamwork is the very heart of community spirit.

Upon arriving at a fire, our electrician would immediately cut the wires leading into a burning building so we wouldn't get electrocuted. The plumber would shut down the gas lines to avoid an explosion. We would then lead into the building with our hoses while the engineer maintained the fire truck's pumping system to ensure we had sufficient water pressure. If we ever lost water in a smoked filled room it could spell doom. [By continuously spraying water around our head, we were able to breath. In those days, we didn't have gas masks or carry two-way radios]. While we were battling the fire, the chief would study the situation making sure we were fighting it properly and not endangering our lives. As he was watching our backs, so too, was everyone watching each other's back.

Responding effectively to emergency situations requires the utmost unity of the responders. There's no place for one-man shows, or "hot dogs", as we called them.

Our teamwork didn't stop after extinguishing fires, but spilled over to the town. Many of the men were forever helping less fortunate towns' folks through pro bono support. Although this was done clandestinely, you could sense the pride they took in serving others; their heart was in it.

Several of us had gardens and ended up with more tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, carrots and beets then we could use at harvest time. Consequently, we distributed our abundance amongst the neighbors in the community. Needless to say, this added to a wholesome sense of community spirit throughout the town.

In his treatise on joy, Pope Paul VI states one of its essential qualities is providing for others; service is at the heart of true happiness. Why is this so? It happens for a number of reasons, many of which we seldom reflect on.

Perhaps the joy of providing for others enlivens our sense of solidarity. It says, "You are not overlooked, we see you, we care for you, we are one with you!"

Interestingly the word "provide" contains the Latin word videre, to see. In our small community few people went unseen; we knew each other's names and those in need were provided for. In a very true way, firemen are not only protectors of neighborhood homes, but in many cases, they are the antithesis of anomie.

The word anomie means rootless or not belonging. In big cities it's not uncommon for people to live in high-rise apartments who never see or get to know any of the occupants. This is especially true of young people working away from home. They may be making big money and imbibing in the city's night life, but they have little to no sense of belonging. As desolate as this can be, it need not be so. I have run across people who sensed anomie in their apartment buildings make it a point to reach out to those living a relatively lonely life. For many in this state of loneliness, the community outreach they experienced was life-transforming; replacing their loneliness with the uplifting spirit of connectivity and inclusivity. Not only were they grateful for this connectedness, but equally true was the joy of those responsible for cultivating community spirit. That joy was especially apparent in my fellow firemen who helped make our town's people feel an important part of the community.

Another ironic reason people rejoice in serving others is found in an observation made by French philosopher Alexis d'Tocqueville. While visiting America, he studied our citizenship and the way we support each other. He surmised that volunteering to help others doesn't always start with community spirit, but rather with self-interests. For example, being a fireman may be to my personal liking. This in turn creates a sense of responsibility for the community's welfare. Before we know it, volunteering for the fire department leads to volunteering for other community services. Why does this happen? It occurs because a deeper sense of responsibility is awakened within us. Suddenly there is that mysterious sense of being called and the need to respond to it. I truly believe the firemen with whom I worked were prompted by an inner calling to increase their services to the community because of the personal joy this gave them.

Turning to the team spirit my co-worker firemen possessed, we need to ask, "What might be the secret behind their being "one for all, and all for one?"

As I became "one of the guys", I also became part of their home-life. One of our firemen grew nothing but cabbages in his garden. While listening to a football game, a group of us would shred them, sprinkle non-iodized salt on the shredded cabbage and pack it down in old stone crocks until it was smothered in its own juices. It was the best sauerkraut you could eat. Then we would get together and have a Rueben Sandwich Evening.

Reflecting back on those evenings reminds me of the beauty of the Eucharist: sharing a meal with beloved friends. Breaking bread together was a very beautiful way to increase camaraderie!

Those Rueben Sandwich Evenings taught me that breaking bread with a friend is vital to deepening friendship and community spirit. The dinner table possesses awesome powers for cultivating fellowship! We have to wonder how many couples first thought of marrying each other around it, how many marital differences were resolved around it, and how many global wars were avoided because of it.

Why is community spirit considered virtuous? The gospels give us the answer. It is because Christ prays that his apostles may be one, as he is one with his father. It is because Christ uses the images of the vine and the branches, and unity with the Father and Holy Spirit; Christ canonizes community spirit in his desire for unity.

In daily life this same oneness is at heart of life's greatest successes. It may be unity within our self that center us; togetherness with a spouse and our children that creates vibrant family life, or cohesion with co-workers that makes our work more enjoyable and effective. Ultimately, oneness is the basis of the good life.

The sanctity of community spirit raises a critical question for our divided times, "What is needed to improve them in a world that grows divided by the day?" Brutal wars, blatant corruption, ecological abuses, unheard of hunger and poverty cannot but cause us to question, "What is missing in our world?" I believe it is the demise of community spirit; we seem to have lost the basic principles needed to cultivate it. If community spirit was embraced ever so little more, peace and unity would reign like never before, selflessness would supplant selfishness, teamwork would unseat rugged individualism, cooperativeness would replace hindrance, sharing goods would outweigh hording them, and conscientious responsibility would override irresponsibility. In sum, we are talking about the potential of community spirit for creating moral goodness. In his book, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Larry L. Rasmussen seconds this observation in stating, "There is no community life apart from morality, and there is no moral life apart from communities." [i]

[i] Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (Oxford University Press, New York, 2013), 160