Twenty years ago I wanted to leave Forest Park. Madison Street was depressed and depressing. After ten years of hard work, my congregation was shrinking. My salary was at the bottom of my national church’s scale, and I had recently gone through a divorce. There seemed to be no reason to stay.
When I told my daughter, who was a student at Fenwick at the time, that I wanted to move to another church, she asked me if I would postpone doing so until she had graduated. Reluctantly, I consented. One thing led to another, and I’m still here.
As you all know, hindsight is 20/20. From the vantage of living and/or working in this town for 31 years, I have a testimony. In exchange for giving up the mobility usually required to climb the corporate, or in my case the ecclesiastical, ladder, I’ve received the gift of relationships.
Some of my connections with people are quite intimate. For example, I’ve been meeting with a men’s group every Thursday evening for 21 years. Guys have come and gone, but three of the original six are still in place. We’ve supported each other through a traumatic brain injury, a back surgery, a knee replacement and divorces. Over the years we’ve had enough time to develop the trust required to be honest with each other and ourselves. It didn’t happen all it once. It took time.
Other relationships are less intimate but personal nevertheless. When I walk into Centuries and Sleuths, Augie doesn’t say, “May I help you?” What he says is, “Hi Tom,” and if there are no customers, he’ll sit down with me for ten minutes and together we’ll solve the world’s problems. When I call someone on the phone and I say, “May I speak with so and so,” often the person will say, “Oh hi Tom.” My accent betrays me, because the person on the other end knows the sound of my voice.
When I go from one business to another asking for donations for the CROP Hunger Walk, some say yes and some say no, but I’m never treated like a nuisance of a salesman who keeps trying to peddle an unwanted product. If they say no, most owners think I’m worth the trouble of explaining why they can’t, because I’m someone they’ve come to know.
Relationships take time, but the converse isn’t necessarily true. Living or working in one place by itself probably won’t result in healthy relationships, unless you put yourself out into the community. Even though I know next to nothing about running a business, the Chamber of Commerce has allowed me to be part of the board of directors for something like twenty years. By getting out there, I’ve learned a lot, but more importantly relationships have formed which have been mutually supportive. It didn’t happen all at once. It took time.
I’ve been praying and serving in the same church building for 31 years now, and by doing so I’ve formed more trusting relationships. Some of those connections have even been with people I don’t like very much, but paradoxically I’ve probably learned the most from them by hanging in there with them for the long haul. And that takes time.
Here’s another thing. In this brave new world of connectivity, you can live a long time in a place and hardly ever be there. For example, have you ever visited people and every two minutes they were tweeting or texting or answering their cell phone? And even though you were both physically present, you felt like the other people weren’t really there, at least not with you?
“Research portrays Americans as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely,” writes Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together. Her thesis is that even though technology makes us feel more connected, it often has the opposite effect. You can eat breakfast once a week at Louie’s for months but be so preoccupied with a screen and distracted by what you are taking in through the buds in your ears that you never learn the name of the woman who works her butt off to serve you.
The corollary of it takes a village to raise a child is that it takes effort and time—a lot of effort and a lot of time—to create a village.
The next time you are offered a “promotion” which requires moving to another town, think twice. You might make more money but in the process lose a whole lot of relational capital.