Monday, November 14, 2005

Hurray for Small Towns

Yesterday was a triumph for community, especially the kind of community you can participate in and build in small towns.

Over the weekend, I spent some time talking to an organizer from Walmart Watch, who I now count among my friends. We were discussing what his future plans will be once this Higher Expectations campaign is over. We spent the better part of two months putting together a screening of Bob Greenwald's film, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices. When we would meet to discuss the how to publicize, get people to our event, set up equipment, etc., we would occasionally turn the conversation to more personal topics. I came to deeply respect him for his commitment to justice. We both had parents who are union organizers, we both love Existentialism, and we both have that fire in your belly, I guess.

Anyway, we were having breakfast this past Saturday and I asked him what his life is like during this campaign. He has moved around 7 times in 8 months; he lives out of hotels.

"How can you have a life?" I asked.

"You can't," he replied.

He is thinking about moving back home, which is New York. He can seek a consulting job and start to build the sort of stability in his life that I realized I already have. I told him how I have lived in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Rome, etc. . . and landed in this tiny, tiny town in a very rural county. He was surprised that I chose to live here given the list of cities I once called home.

I realized, at that moment, why I had stayed in this town. While we were talking and walking to and fro locales, I had seen and greeted the Borough Council President, the owner of the hip coffee shop, a local business man, etc. I know a great many people in this town, and after 7 years, a great many of them have embraced me.

While this is a very conservative county, it is also a community, with all the features of small towns that big strip malls, developments and Wal-marts threaten to destroy. You can be sure that your children will be safer here, you see acres and acres of land here, old farmhouses, and hang out with the head of the chamber of commerce each friday for beers.

Before the Walmart screening last night, I went to see community theater: a play called "Crimes of the Heart," which depicted three sisters returning home to a small town in Mississippi because their grandfather is dying. A colleague of mine was a lead role and she did marvelously. I looked around the theater, which was a sometimes basketball court in an old school house turned community center. The audience was filled with many retired folks, who remind me of my grandmother. They were dressed in their Sunday finest to see a play, and were absolutely grateful for this small community theater.

I loved that the people brought together in that room were just people, who loved seeing a play. I probably have little in common with them, many of whom wore proudly their American flag pins in their lapel, but our politics didn't matter. The play gave us an opportunity to think beyond the polarizing rhetoric of our day, and sit down and experience the pleasures and problems of small town life: gossip, small-minded folks, and yet acceptance and deep kindness in times of tragedy. You cannot turn people whose politics you don't like into caricatures in small towns. You live with these people, go to school with them, see them at church, at the market . . .you see all their wonderful dimensions.

I left this play, and headed to my little church to set up for the screening. A few people showed up early and we played around with space. Ultimately, we decided to move the chairs to face the wall, where we would project the film. Everyone in that room pitched in immediately, even a 85 year old woman was dragging chairs. Then, we awaited, nervously, to see who would show up.

A steady stream of folks started in, the chairs were half full, it was 6:12 and we were happy. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we had a flood of people. All the seats were taken, folks started to sit up on the stage and floors. Younger folks gave their seats to older folks in canes or wheelchairs. Even more people showed up and then we had people standing in the back, in the doorway, and in the small rooms on either side of the church. Our little church was packed, I would imagine that 130+ people made it out to see this film.

We had to turn on the fans, open the doors and windows, so that folks weren't dying of heat. Only one or two left despite the conditions. The film lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes, and the audience didn't stir or get restless. You could hear sighs of disbelief, horror and then laughter. When the film ended, the whole crowd spontaneously clapped. As people got up from their seats, the moved over to me or my organizer friend and asked how to be part of the campaign. Others were deeply concerned about how to avoid Walmart when there was nowhere else to shop.

The response was meaningful and real. A colleague of mine, upon entering the church, asked me why I was so amazed at the turn out. I shook my head and said that I didn't expect this many people. She said "you don't know this town."

Indeed, I didn't. But, I am getting a sense of what is possible in small towns and what is so precious about them. Everyone in that church last night, and the community theater earlier in the day, can attest to the spirit of small town life. I have never been so committed as I was last night to keep it alive.