You don’t have to be a believer to have a good family. And some families manage to get by without a father, whether because of divorce, death, or abandonment. Others seem all right and do okay without the interaction inherent in a vibrant community. But can I tell you how thankful I am for my membership in a church that stresses the importance of all three, not only stresses their importance but fosters their development?
Last night, for example, I sat in the basement of my bishop’s home with 12 or 13 other men and women–leaders of the various organizations in my church or ward–calendaring for the upcoming year. As we discussed in-service training for teachers, next year’s 4th of July breakfast, and a possible international night in the cultural hall of our chapel (food and festivities from a variety of nations and ethnicities), we also discussed the needs of people within our ward’s boundaries* and how we could help them.
Every year, we have a “Ward Salmon Fry” in early September. This year we changed the name to “Neighborhood Salmon Fry,” so people in our neighborhood of other faiths might feel more welcome to that annual gathering. In the early morning of virtually every holiday–Memorial Day, for example–the young men and women of our ward place flags on the lawns of any and all in our neighborhood. That evening, they return to retrieve the flags. And on and on.
In the end, these efforts build community. In the end, such activities strengthen families and let people know they are not alone. And in the end, our little corner of the United States is a little stronger, perhaps a little safer, and possibly a better place to live. The efforts of other churches in our area to do similar things that increase that sense of community and belonging.
Then comes Sunday, and I get to sit in a pew and be reminded of my responsibilities as a husband and father. Once or twice a month, someone at church will ask whether I’ve done my home teaching (Mormon men and woman are assigned to visit members in their homes at least once a month to visit and to simply check up on their well being). Of course, the corollary is that my wife and I receive such visits into our home at least once a month. (One of the beauties of this “Home Teaching” or “Visiting Teaching” program is that we are assigned people to visit or be visited by. We don’t get to choose. Thus, I often spend time with people I might otherwise not associate with. The benefits of that should be obvious.)
I should mention that I live in a middle class and certainly not wealthy neighborhood. I’d be surprised if the average home price exceeded $180,000. It’s about as racially mixed as Utah gets, with a fair number of blacks, Latinos, and Asians, all of whom I know on a first name basis, many of whom have been in my home. I should also mention that I’ve seen and felt the same kind of support in wards in inner-city Lansing, Michigan and in some of the poorest parts of Brazil.
I was reminded of the importance of all this when I read a piece today by Walter Russell Mead, titled Obama Flub’s Inequality Message. The title is unfortunate because I not writing this to take pot shots at President Obama, though I agree with Mead that he and others need to focus more on the following:
. . . there’s plenty of evidence that unwed childbearing, father absence and fraying kinship and community networks exacerbate the problems of low-income people and make it incredibly hard for them to gain a foothold in the middle class. These are thorny problems that aren’t easily solved by the kinds of government measures Obama champions.
I often wish the President of the United States (all of them) would more often use the bully pulpit much like speakers in my church use the church’s pulpit. Use it to speak to the themes of family, fathers, and community; to tell (shame?) absentee fathers into shouldering their responsibilities; to plead with young men and women to marry first, have children later; to encourage young and old to get more involved in their communities. In church, we refer to this as a call to repentance, which is just another word for change. All of this would ultimately strengthen the family (families of all types) and thereby strengthen the community.
Yes, economics are important, but without a firm foundation of family, fathers**, and community, all that economic help is apt to trickle into a sink hole rather than help anybody.
*In the Mormon church, local congregations are called “wards,” each of which have defined boundaries. Approximately 10 wards make up a “stake.” Wards typically have around 250-300 members.
**To the women reading this, I speak of fathers not because they are more important than mothers but because to my knowledge, we don’t have an epidemic of absentee mothers.