Brother James Koester of the Society of St. John the Evangelist says: ”One of the great struggles of contemporary North America is the decay of community. We see it in our inner cities, and we see it in our suburban neighborhoods. People have stopped taking responsibility for one another because we no longer know each other. We no longer belong to one another. We no longer live in communion with one another.”
I recently wrote about the heart and compassion. What brother James says above is one of the cancers on our society. When I was a young lad growing in Newark and East Orange New Jersey, I lived in a neighborhood that was death to us young boys, who ran around getting in trouble. I remember a day that four of us were walking home from the local playground, and we passed a storefront with apartments upstairs; the building was being razed to make room for a mini-shopping center that would eventually cover the entire block. Most of the second floor was already demolished. This being a Sunday afternoon, there was nobody working on the building; there were many, and I mean many, broken bricks lying about.
What were we to do; this is obviously one of those instances when reason goes jet-propelled out of the window. We all took turns throwing bricks through the still mostly intact plate-glass windows of the defunct drug store. For the next ten minutes, all you heard was the impact of the bricks and the shattering of the glass. It was the most enlightening afternoon for the four of us. That is . . . until we heard sirens in the distance.
Well, the police were not as attuned to all the hiding places and escape routes in our neighborhood; needless to say, not one of us was caught by the local dragnet. That is . . . Until we got home.
By the time I walked in the back door of our third-floor apartment, my mother was standing there with her wooden spoon. If you were raised in the 1950s, you knew what the wooden spoon was for. My mother had the biggest, non-breakable wooden spoon on planet Earth.
When I joined the Marines in 1963, my drill instructor asked us why we joined the toughest military branch. When it was my turn, I said it was to avoid my mother and her wooden spoon. My drill instructor got nose-to-nose with me, much like the scene in Full Metal Jacket, and yelled, (as if I couldn’t hear him, standing this close), “Are you trying to tell me that your mother is tougher than the Marines? Me? Your drill instructor and father for the next fourteen weeks?” Not wanting to lie to him, I of course said, “Yes, Sir!” at the top pf my lungs. That was my first corporal correction in the Corps. Fourteen weeks later, while getting on the bus for Camp LeJeune, he pulled me out of line and asked, again nose to nose, but not as loud, “Private First-Class Carter, do you still think your mother is tougher than me?” I, of course, said, again at the top of my voice, “Yes, Sargent.” He booted me in the hind quarters and told me to get on the bus.
Well, my mother greeted me with the wooden spoon clutched firmly in both hands and started swinging.
If you grew up in the inner city in the 1940s or 1959s, you will understand that we had what I refer to as a front stoop neighborhood. Without air conditioning, everyone got out of their hot, stuffy apartments sitting on their front stoops. Everybody knew everybody’s business. It was a very close-knit, family-oriented community, one in which everyone looked out for everyone’s benefit. This unfortunately included any type of trouble that the young boys caused. Most days, our misdeeds were known to our families before we got home.
Ultimately, we all were driven to the local police department, where we confessed our crimes, and were given a sharp slap on our wrists and told to never do this again. Thinking back, all of the policemen were trying to conceal smiles. I am sure they were thinking of their own days on the streets as early teenagers; and, they also noticed that all four of us were rubbing our very sore rear cheeks.
Brother James is correct; we have isolated our lives behind closed doors in very comfortable air conditioning. This has reduced the vitality of our neighborhoods and created a sense of abject fear within us . . .all. We never locked our doors in the 1950s; now we have two locks on all doors and even alarm systems to protect our belongings.
What we have not protected is the closeness we have lost with our neighbors, other than a quick wave hello as we hop in our SUVs and head to our air-conditioned offices.
Recently, an Australian woman, having emigrated to the United States to marry, was shot by the police after calling 911 on what she thought was a woman being raped. A young woman trying to be caring towards another, and she is killed by the police. This will encourage people all over the country to stay inside their fortress homes and ignore what is happening to others on the streets of our cities.
I yearn and cry for the community we have lost in this country. I also grieve because I know that it may never return.
God help us, Brother James. Our communion is lost . . . forever?