Sticking together in sticky times
I was just unpacking my things from a month-long working trip to various countries and conferences when I got a call from a nephew in California. My nephew, Bruce, had been ordered to evacuate his family immediately in the wake of the wildfires raging around San Diego. So, as I was clearing out little pieces of paper with written notes and wrinkly worn clothing, he was grabbing photos, records and pets and stuffing them in the family car. The remnants in my suitcases from my excursion reminded me of the heroics I had heard of in other countries and other times. My nephew was being challenged by similar forces in the here and now.
Not only did Bruce’s family have to sort through their own belongings to select the most essential, but their next-door neighbors were out of the country and sent by phone directions as to where they should look for valuables to save. Amidst it all, Bruce needed to find the neighbor’s horse a safe home.
‘It is odd,’ Bruce told me, ‘to realize that after a lifetime of acquiring position and possessions, it really is such a small amount of things that one needs to go forward.’
In an act symbolic of the conditions of the day, friends offered their spare bedroom to my nephew’s family and their two big dogs. Thousands of firefighters, national guardsmen and neighbors performed repeated acts of selfless heroism. It all came down to people helping people. For better and for worse, southern California and its citizens will never be the same.
Just prior to the fires in California, I had been visiting the countries of Romania, Moldova and Serbia. Before I started the trip, I read several books to familiarize myself with the history and nature of the area we call the Balkans. I was repeatedly reminded of the constant wars and turmoil that had gone on in this area for centuries. I felt I could summarize hundreds of pages of words with the brief statement: ‘They beat each other up over and over and over again.’
Thus, when we entered Romania, I was surprised to see ancient monasteries still standing. They are covered inside and out with beautiful painted frescos of the saints. Through all the conquests and destruction over the centuries, the people worked together to protect their monasteries against invaders. Monasteries were the symbols of who they were as a people and of their culture. They found their identity in their beliefs as Eastern Orthodox Christians. The monasteries represented their power to exist amidst enemies of different faiths. Today, these architectural creations of the 15th century set the tone for Romania and are the leading tourist destination.
I witnessed the results of the same citizen determination and cooperation in the country of Serbia. A country with a culture of warfare, they built fortresses at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. This strategic location became Belgrade, the capitol of Serbia. Originally, the rivers divided the area into regions. But when bridges were built, the area and its people became unified as well as stronger. The bridges now signify freedom to the citizens, the freedom to go and come at their will within their small country.
In 1999, with the encouragement of the students of Serbia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization entered the attempt to uproot the dictator Milosevic from power. This meant bombing strategic locations. In the city of Novi Sod, military buildings and transportation routes were targeted and destroyed. The students realized the tremendous toll this would take if their bridges were attacked. People would not be able to go about their daily business of going to work, school or even getting to the hospital. It was feared that the energy of the resistance against Milosevic would be splintered. They reasoned that NATO would not bomb the bridges if a great many citizens joined together and occupied them. And so for days, thousands of people of all ages and natures lived on the bridges eating, playing music and talking. They saved their bridges that were important to them in a practical and symbolic way.
Saving the bridges in Belgrade did not cost them any money, just a bit of bravery, energy and organization. They just stood where smart thinking told them as responsible citizens. They trusted and helped each other. Belgrade, like Southern California, will never be the same.
One has to stop and wonder if it takes a crisis to realize what is important to the life of a community. We have had tornadoes and flooding in Southern Indiana. During these threatening times, people showed their ‘can-do’ spirit and jumped in to help each other. Our communities are rich and strong because of this innate spirit of cooperation.
Today, the enemies to our way of life are not as recognizable as fires, bombs or invaders. But today we have silent and slow conditions that threaten our identity and culture. What are they? What does it take to address them? And, are we willing to undertake the smart actions that points to the future we want? Let’s respond in these no-crisis times with the gusto and dedication that has served us so well in the past.