This I Believe

The following is something that I wrote about a year ago. I had intended to send it in to NPR’s “This I Believe” series, but never got around to it.

This I believe:

I believe in community responsibility. I believe we are responsible for making the world a better place, and that we are responsible for the welfare of our neighbors. I was taught this by my father.

I grew up in a rural area with few well-paying jobs. When I graduated high school, the unemployment rate in the county was around 17%. There were few local career choices.

My father worked two jobs. One of them was as a sign painter. I remember an occasion, when I was around fifteen, when a customer failed to pay his bill on time. Now, my father gave away a lot of signs to churches, fire departments, and charities, and he would often tailor his bill to the customer’s ability to pay, but this customer just didn’t want to pay. The bill was well past due. I went with my father to collect on it.

I can clearly remember my father, who was not tall or muscular, standing in the dirt driveway speaking with a large gruff man who appeared to dwarf him and telling him to pay his bill. He didn’t threaten the man with a collection agency, or legal action, or personal injury. He just told him that the bill was due and it was his responsibility to pay. It was my father’s responsibility to make the sign, and it was his responsibility to pay for it. That was all it took. The man went inside and came out a few minutes later, paying the bill in full, “plus something for your time.” It took me thirty years and thousands of miles before I understood what two men who had known hard times understood implicitly. In a hardscrabble rural area, being known as someone who shirked responsibility meant that you were something less than a man.

Responsibility meant a lot where I grew up. The church taught me that you were responsible to God, your parents, and your neighbors. The Boy Scout troop taught me to “help other people at all times” and to “do a good turn daily”. When your neighbor’s house burned down, it was your responsibility to help feed, clothe, and shelter the family. When your neighbor got sick, you were responsible for taking them a casserole or soup, making sure their chores got done, and giving them a lift to the medical clinic. When snowstorms knocked down power lines and drifting snow blocked the roads, the local snowmobile club went door to door, checking on people and delivering food and supplies. The volunteer fire department never lacked for a helping hand. My father spent several years as a volunteer firefighter, and was the fire chief for a while.

Thirty years later I was the volunteer fire chief in another rural community, this time in Alaska. I saw people materialize out of the woods to help fight fires and I saw fresh coffee and donuts miraculously appear afterwards. When a teenager committed suicide with a firearm in his bedroom, I saw neighbors clean the entire house for the family.

When winter came, a group of neighbors flooded an area and made an ice rink for everyone to use. Somebody else collected the shoe sizes of all the neighborhood children and bought second-hand ice skates for everyone.

When someone asked why they should donate for a new ambulance, I said it was their responsibility to support their community. They understood. They donated.

Too often we shirk responsibility. It’s much easier to trade responsibility for comfort, for safety, for ease. Real responsibility requires discomfort, a sense of danger, unease. Real responsibility requires that you know and care for your neighbors, whether you like them or not. It requires that you look the homeless person in the eye. It requires that you give step outside your cocoon and give something of yourself to others. Mutual responsibility is the force that forges community.

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