A Neighborly Place in the City
By Robert Raccuglia
In Wendell Berry’s funny persuasive speech topics short story, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn”, a young woman, relatively new to the community of Port William, takes to bed shivering with illness after her morning chores, feeling so lonely and miserable that “she truly did not care if she died.” Though she had tried to hide it from her husband, Elton, he notices that she is not feeling well and alerts a neighbor woman when he headed out at sunrise to plow the field. When Mary awakes, the house is warm and a tea kettle is heating on the stove. The neighbor, knitting in the rocker by her bed, says simply, “Well, are you awake? Are you all right?” Feeling the soothing embrace of this simple, unexpected kindness, Mary replies “Oh, I’m wonderful.” And she sleeps again.
Earlier in the story we learned that inhttp://touchscreenwifirouter.com/ the year and a half that the newlyweds lived there, Mary “had become a daughter to every woman in the community…They were capable, unasking, generous, humorous women, and sometimes, among themselves, they were raucous and free, unlike the other women she had known.” Mary and Elton had become a part of a richly textured farm community.
The families had worked together a long time. They all knew what each other was good at. When they worked together, not much needed to be explained. When they went down to the little weatherboarded church at Goforth on Sunday morning, they were glad to see one another, and had lots to say, though they had seen each other almost daily during the week.
For the past decade or so, my wife and I have been a part of the parish community of St. Gertrude’s in the diverse Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. Though the urban setting is dramatically different from Berry’s fictional farm community of Port William, there is a kinship of experience in the two places. What’s common to both is a neighborliness that is uncommon in today’s world. There have been times in our parish when I’ve acutely and gratefully felt that I was in the world of “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” – a place where a person in need is likely to be noticed and responded to with care simply because that is what these kinds of communities do. Such behavior might be expected in a tight-knit rural setting, and it’s gratifying to know that it is possible even in a city neighborhood.
St. Gertrude’s Parish is not unique; many churches, mosques and synagogues cultivate vibrant community life, though some do it better than others. Returning to Wendell Berry for a moment, I’m reminded of the way he speaks of the Port William “membership.” This membership is not like a country club membership based on exclusivity and privilege, but a belonging based on relationship, caring and mutual responsibility. A church community might speak of it in scriptural terms – “we are members one to another. “ My point here, though, is not to talk about religion, but to cite this parish as an example of how it is possible for some of the alienating and isolating effects of city life to be overcome, or at least ameliorated.
Aside from the worship and other typical parish activities of St. Gertrude’s, one striking characteristic of the community, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood, is diversity. Its makeup includes people from various races, ethnic backgrounds, ages and sexual orientations. There is interaction among members across these differences in informal ways, as well as through programmed events like “Diversity Dinners” that bring together small groups of folks that would not naturally get to know one another in the normal course of things. These modest efforts seem to pay off. The parish is not a utopia of harmony and inclusiveness, but more often than not diversity is welcomed and appreciated rather than rejected and feared.
Recently, there have been several instances of relatively young parishioners learning that they have cancer requiring treatment by chemotherapy. Word spread almost immediately (one of the benefits of nearly everyone staying after mass every Sunday for coffee and conversation). The community literally gathered around them in prayer, but also set up “meal trains” and other ways of offering concrete support. No one has to feel that she or he is facing life’s difficulties alone.
It is highly valued among many people in Edgewater that it be a real neighborhood. They chose to put down roots and raise their kids there for that reason. The 1400 block of Norwood Street, for example, populated by a number of St. Gertrude families, has tightly spaced homes, an unusually large number of kids and also old folks who have lived there for decades. Neighborliness is evident in many ways. The sidewalks and porches are alive with play, activity and conversation whenever the weather permits. The children are constantly in and out of each other’s houses. There is shared babysitting. In the winter the elderly know that their sidewalks will be cleared by their able bodied neighbors. There is a biennial block play in which most families participate.
The community seems to foster a sense of family, civic and workplace responsibility. A doctor lends his services to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to Haiti after the earthquake. The local alderman is an active parishioner and effective public servant. Several members help spearhead the Edgewater Environmental Sustainability Project. More than 400 parishioners volunteer to put on a neighborhood street fair. There are countless examples.
Another sign of the health of the community is the way its members celebrate and play together. Graced with talented musicians, there are parties full of live music and dancing. The parish has two hilarious plays each year that parishioners write and that are acted and sung by scores of its members from children to octogenarians. The street fair, mentioned above, again brings all ages together for summer’s last hurrah in September.
I write this reflection not as a brief for religion or as a paean to St. Gertrude’s, but simply to note an example of something in place that is helping a group of people live a more convivial life. The stability and service orientation that it engenders benefits the entire neighborhood. It is a kind of voluntary association that Tocqueville saw as key to American civic life in the 19th century. It, of course, involves financial support by the members, but it is not market driven or especially market dependent. Why this kind of community life happens in some places and not in others is a little mysterious. Once a group of people begin building a life around values like friendship, compassion, justice, inclusiveness and celebration, perhaps others begin to see it as an appealing alternative to the prevailing consumption-oriented mentality. Maybe it’s as simple and difficult as that.
Robert Racculgia is Director Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center in Chicago.