A year ago this week, in the spring of 2013, I embarked on a service immersion trip to Montgomery, Alabama with nine undergraduate students. During our one-week stay we served some unforgettable communities and learned a great deal, through various tours and personal stories, about the Civil Rights movement. We met people whose faces and stories will forever be etched into my mind, and in this reflection, I hope to give my humble thanks to them—with a special thanks to our most generous hosts Ms. Michelle Coe and Father Emanual—for opening their hearts and lives to us, for teaching me the power and importance of community, and for making us feel like home in a place we had never been before.
Finding Community in Montgomery
Alabama is truly beautiful. Its soft hills and endless fields of green lulled me into daydreams. I was mesmerized by the commanding presence of nature all around as we drove through the state. An enormous wall of trees bordered the highways, clumps of leaves and tangled moss dangling from perpendicular branches, the sun glazing over the windshield, poking its yellow beams through knots of leaves in the trees. Every so often the wall of trees would drop, and my eyes would suddenly gaze over a serene scene of land where cows and horses grazed just beyond a fence that separated nature from concrete. They appeared as a mirage, the animals, detached from the complex world of the modern human. They were undisturbed.
I’d always intellectually understood the importance of community, of kindness, and of giving yourself to a larger purpose. But the week I spent in Montgomery last spring refocused my understanding completely.
I realized that community is sacred, not just important. That kindness is necessary, not just a matter of manners or convenience. It’s easy to be kind when you’re in a good mood and when you like the person to whom you offer your kindness. But how about when your spirits are low and the people around you feel like hungry hyenas? That’s when it’s most important to be kind. It’s certainly not easy, but that’s why it’s so necessary.
“To strengthen the muscles of your heart, the best exercise is lifting someone else’s spirit whenever you can.” Dodinski
I realized that giving yourself to a larger purpose is essential to peace, to positive change, and to the understanding of self and others.
But what does this mean?
I began to reflect on my role within the communities that I populate. And that’s just it—am I merely populating them? Am I just a seat ﬁller, a street address, a name on a family tree? If I were going to be exiled from my communities, what would I say as a defense for why I should stay?
What is my unique contribution?
Everybody has a unique gift. Even the act of being a good friend is a unique gift (and sometimes even a treasure) to someone’s life. I believe one of the purposes of life is to discover, hone, and give your unique gift to those around you. We are all born with unique gifts that can be nurtured into talents and skills and strengths. Some gifts are more obvious than others; some gifts may take years to develop or be discovered.
And these gifts, once found and honed, are meant to be given—not hoarded, not placed inside of a glass case or beneath a fancy title for admiration. Gifts are meant to be given. Stories are meant to be shared. If we have the courage to give our gifts and share our stories, the world will feel less daunting, coarse, and lonely.
“Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” Stephen Cope from The Great Work of Your Life
My week in Montgomery taught me the importance of being an active member in my communities. I’m not saying you have to run for PTA president or dedicate your life to social activism (although, hey, if that’s your calling, go for it!)… What I’m saying is that it’s important to be cognizant of the powerful impact that you can have where you stand, wherever that may be.
I learned that it doesn’t suffice to carry on in your life, in your own personal radius, chasing your own personal ambitions, content in the thought that so long as your actions aren’t harming anyone, you can do as you please. The question that should be asked is: are your actions helping anyone? Whether that anyone is a friend or a family member or an animal or a person you may never even meet.
The problem is that people tend to underestimate the difference they can make in their communities. Everyone thinks: “Well, I am just one. What can I do?”
“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” Dalai Lama
I don’t think you can strive to be the best person that you can be without your communities. And that’s because we are social creatures. We are interdependent. We need each other. We are reflections of each other. We are all connected in one way or another.
Retreating to your personal radius is necessary; believe me, as an introvert, I know. But my week in Montgomery helped me recognize just how important a role I can play in my communities. Being active—that’s what kneads bread, builds roads, draws smiles, sows gardens, teaches children, nurtures friendships, molds strength, creates art, cultivates growth, inspires ideas.
Community is more than just a physical location. More than the environment you occupy. Community is a smile to your neighbor, a kind word to a stranger or loved one, an empty can that you pick up from a lawn that isn’t yours, and speaking of lawns—community is picking up after your dog!
Community is the giving of yourself to that which you belong.
And it’s true. The one thing I learned from living in different countries is that the people make the place. I cannot stress this enough. Not the aesthetics of buildings or streets. Not the attractions or amenities or affordability of certain luxuries. Not even the climate or geographical location (although I do love beaches). It’s the people that make the place. It’s the friendships and bonds and memories you create… with people in that place.
Families turn houses into homes. Neighbors turn streets into magical childhood settings, plots of dirt into bountiful community gardens. Children and teachers and staff turn buildings and campuses into schools. And in that same way, we human beings make this earth. From the earth we were shaped and to the earth we shall return.
And so I came to understand that civic health is not less important than physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. To be civically healthy is to be aware of what’s happening outside of your personal world, to engage in your communities and strive to make them better so that you too can be better, so that future generations can be inspired to be better.
And we can only be responsible for what we do in our communities. And it’s up to us to figure out what we can do. It’s overwhelming because there are so many needs in this world. Where does one even begin?! How does one even try to make a difference?
And the answer is in your gift. Find your assignment. What is it that you’re good at or passionate about?
There is where you can make a supreme difference.
Bringing Change Home
The thing about inspiration is that it’s so potent in the moment, but sadly, like perfume, it fades. But my experience in Montgomery, Alabama last spring was so transformative and illuminating, it awakened in me a heightened sense of duty towards the communities in my life, one that has permanently changed the way I view myself in this world.
Since Montgomery—I read my neighborhood’s community newsletter, which I would have trashed into the recycle bin before.
Since Montgomery—I have made more of an effort to call and visit my beloved grandmother. My overall sense of appreciation for the loved ones in my life has magnified ten times over.
Since Montgomery—I have become a member of Illinois PIRG, “a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety”.
Since Montgomery—I have strived to educate my family and friends on the evils of puppy mills (I’m passionate about animal welfare as far as pets are concerned), and on the importance of adopting, not buying, cats and dogs.
Since Montgomery—I have started this blog, which may sound silly, but it has given me a channel through which I can share my gift—my passion for writing—something I didn’t have the courage to do before.
But most of all, since Montgomery, I have recognized that I do play an important role in the people in my life, a role I shouldn’t underestimate, a role I must live up to.
I have learned that I must always have the courage to give my gift and share my story and stand up for the things that are important to me.
I have learned that service comes in many forms, and that you truly can make a difference anywhere you are, and in many simple ways. You just need to be willing. You just need to step outside of your personal world a little bit, look around you, be a part of your community, and arm your heart with hope, faith, courage, and the power of love and persistence.