Here are two true stories.
The first one goes like this. It took years for regular working people in my neighborhood to exert sufficient pressure on a dysfunctional municipal system to get the lights back on in our local park. Let me say that again: it took years.
This is no disused patch of grass. This park is widely used and enjoyed by all kinds of people: little kids, teenage basketball players, dog walkers, barbecuers, the stroller brigade, the skateboard brigade, and the old lady brigade. Nearly all of the lights in the park, which occupies a full city block, were broken. This was particularly insulting since the park is equipped with an unusually high number of lamp posts and overhead floodlight fixtures. Whoever did the landscape design for the park really wanted it to be well-lit. Which it should be. After all, this is New Orleans. We’re not exactly winning any public safety awards, and we shouldn’t be giving unnecessary temptation to the small-time drug slingers and petty thieves who lurk in our neighborhood, just as they lurk in every other neighborhood in this city.
To get this relatively simple repair job accomplished, it took hundreds of hours, hundreds of phone calls, hundreds of emails (most ignored or unreturned), and probably more than a few exasperated curse words from a whole gaggle of people. (Full disclosure: I was one of these people, but only fairly recently, and only in a very minor way. The real work was done by others, starting long ago.) All of these people have busy lives: crying babies, stressful jobs, planes to catch, errands to run. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard the job only finally got done because of a little wheel-greasing and appropriations magic at the state level. Alas.
But here’s the second true story. Tonight, as I walked my dog in the park at dusk, all the lights came on. Every single one, gradually, just as they should. I stayed later than usual because – gasp! – I could! In such a brilliantly lit park! I mingled with several neighbors who wandered through smiling in amazement at the “new” lights. I got to know a few new people and caught up with some of my regular park associates. The park was back to being what it should be — a kind of glue in our community.
So those are two true stories. Here’s the lesson. The deeply important and extremely difficult work of community-building and positive social change is mostly slow, unglamorous, frustrating, tedious, anonymous and devoid of glory. It doesn’t usually happen in big flourishes like a huge rally or a dramatic bill-signing. (I’m told there will be a lighting ceremony at the park, but I’m sure it will be a mere postscript for back-patting politicians.) Sure, occasionally you’ll see momentous accomplishments ushered in by breathtaking heroes like Martin Luther King. But most positive social progress comes in inches won through ordinary plodding by lots of people you’ll never hear about, with no cameras on them, dialing their phones, raising their little voices, telling people why their community should be a little bit better, should maybe have a few more lights.
It is this sort of activity we should study in the greatest possible detail and hold in the highest possible regard. It is this sort of habit we should strive to cultivate, both in ourselves and in others. And it is this sort of everyday activism – not dramatic moral heroism – that Loyola’s service learning program aims to build up in its students.
One final question: why did all these people spend hundreds of hours of their valuable and limited time shaking their metaphorical fists to get the lights on? Especially when everyone knows all such efforts face incredibly steep odds in this city? Presumably this time could’ve been spent dropping off the dry cleaning, mowing the lawn or doing any of the millions of little tasks that busy people somehow have to get done every day.
I suspect they did it because they believe – sometimes against much evidence to the contrary – that they and their families and their neighbors are worth it. In the Bible, faith is described as the “evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). At long last, I see the lights on in the park. I still see people in my neighborhood tirelessly and anonymously pushing to make our community better in other ways. For me, these are the best pieces of evidence that we’re all worth it. May we all aspire to be worthy of this kind of care and concern, and may we have the faith to demonstrate it in our own small, everyday ways.