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By Leslie Fain
As Americans have increasingly moved away from small towns to urban and suburban living, something critical may have been lost in the transition – namely, our sense of community.
When writer Rod Dreher was an adolescent, he could not wait to escape his socially oppressive hometown of St. Francisville, La.
Years later, during his sister’s battle with cancer and following her death, however, he was amazed at the sense of community he saw in his hometown: The townspeople raised thousands of dollars for the family to cover medical costs, neighbors prepared meals and cleaned the house for the family and over 1,000 people attended her funeral.
Dreher realized if something happened to him, his wife, Julie, or his children, they would not have that kind of support, so they made the decision to leave Philadelphia and move back to Louisiana.
In “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” Dreher tells the story of his sister, a devoted middle school teacher in a poor parish in south Louisiana, and the community she nourished and that gave back to her and her family.
So what changed in St. Francisville?
“The town changed somewhat. It’s become more tolerant and diverse in the 30 years since I left here,” said Dreher. “But mostly, I think, I changed – and it was Ruthie’s dying that effected the change in me.”
“As I write about in the book, it’s not that I realized I had been entirely wrong about the town, but rather that considering the town in light of Ruthie’s suffering transfigured it in my moral imagination,” he continued. “That is, I saw the town as it really is: a place of sin and brokenness, but also a place of extraordinary love and grace. Like most families, actually.”
According according to Dr. Gary Green, professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dreher’s experience is not uncommon, but rather a reflection of a growing community deficit in America.
“There is plenty of social science evidence that we have become more socially isolated, especially over the past 40 years or so,” said Green. “Numerous factors have contributed to the decline in our sense of community, including: suburbanization, technology [such as] television and the Internet, time pressures due to working longer hours and increased female labor force participation, residential mobility, etc.”
Although the U.S. culture tends to glorify individualism, Green asserted, community is important to people’s well-being.
“There is a good bit of literature suggesting that a sense of community is essential to our physical and mental health as well,” said Green. “People that interact more with others are happier and have a great sense of efficacy.”
“Sense of community is essential to solving collective problems that face residents,” said Green. “If people don’t feel a sense of community, they are less likely to invest in effort to improve the quality of life in an area.”
Dreher admits that moving home is not the answer for everyone.
Jon Cogburn, associate professor at Louisiana State University’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, agrees.
“Many of us can’t go back home. Some of us are military brats. Some of us come from home towns that have been completely hollowed out by sending manufacturing overseas, bad farm policy and various related cultural dysfunctions,” said Cogburn. “For many of us it’s simply not economically viable to go home.”
Then how does someone create community where he is? It is not always easy, as the “tension between individuality and community is part of the human condition, and as such one of the enduring themes in great art and philosophy,” said Cogburn.
“Our contemporary public institutions, popular culture, and mythologies lean heavily towards destructive forms of individualism,” said Cogburn,
Dreher said he thinks the first step in creating community is realizing we actually need other people, and they need us.
“We tend to think of the community like a public utility: It’s always going to be there. But that’s not true,” said Dreher. “You get out of it what you put into it.
“Helping to start a new church in my own town has taught me how much I’ve always taken church for granted and always depended on somebody else to do the heavy lifting of community,” he said.
Dreher added he has also gotten involved in local government.
“I had been entirely disengaged from matters of local government, but got drawn in when I heard that the parish council was working to overturn an election we had just months ago,” said Dreher. “When I started going to the meetings, I was appalled by how poorly we are governed. Others here are waking up the same way I’ve awakened. The price we pay for our passivity and apathy is great.”
“I think we build community by finding manageable projects that we do with people we love,” said Cogburn. “If you are lucky enough to have a loving family and faith community, this is much easier. Some of Ruthie’s deepest attachments were from her students and fellow teachers. So the same love, the same little way that can make a family or faith community great can, I hope, help turn any group of people into a community.”
The idea of the U.S. becoming more community-minded presents more of a challenge.
“This issue is pretty tough to turn around in the short-run,” said Green.
“People need to build trust and reciprocity through increased social interaction, either through participation in local organizations or institutions,” said Green. “People will not get involved, however, if they don’t believe their participation really matters. Social events and celebration are also a good way to bring people together to encourage interaction.”
In moving from a major city to a small, rural town, Dreher and his family have done their share of sacrificing, too.
“The big thing we gave up is opportunity – opportunity for a wide array of choices, both trivial – restaurants, shopping – and serious, like educational opportunities for our children, and career progress for myself,” said Dreher.
“But what we gained is the opportunity to embed ourselves in a community, to get to know our extended family members, to start a mission church,” he said. “The things we lack in this small town have been an inspiration to creativity. We are learning how to be satisfied within limits, and to be grateful for the small things we have. When you can’t go wide, you have to go deep. That can be painful and hard, but it can also be intensely rewarding.”
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in the South with her husband and three sons. In addition to being published in WND, she has written for the Catholic World Report and has an article in the upcoming issue of the Human Life Review.