“Yes we can!” “Make America Great Again”—these are among the flood of exhortations from our civic leaders. Their first purpose is to bring voters into the camp. They are voiced as if nothing currently exists that matches the motto. They represent the goals that we citizens are supposed to live up to.
But aren’t many people doing exactly that? Are there not thousands of examples across these 50 states where this ‘Yes’ and this ‘Greatness’ already exist?
One such example takes place every night in the basement of a remodeled duplex in central city Milwaukee. Fifteen people have a meal together and talk with and to one another. They have committed to do this for seven months.
Would you make this kind of commitment if you thought there was a chance for a more civil society to emerge? To participate in a process of bringing our citizens and our country together again?
Take a peek at this dinner gathering. The group is half Caucasian and half African-American. One member has to abstain from the prepared meal of pasta and sausage to honor his faith. Half have had family-supporting jobs while half have existed on minimum wage or less. Most still have some connection with their immediate families: spouse, children, mom, dad or grandmom.
It is Milwaukee. It is America. It is a sign of hope for civil community!
Fourteen sit around a rectangular table, while one is at a table a few feet away. He leans forward in his 6’7” frame so he too can be “at the table, with the people.”
Shortly after the meal begins, someone announces that each person will have an opportunity to answer a question for the evening. “Who in your life truly cares about you?” is a fairly typical question. The go-round begins with people sharing their name and an experience that roots the question in their own experience. It leads to sharing and story telling.
Responses are sometimes short and sometimes longer, but everyone responds even though “passing” is an option. The leader’s primary role is to repeat or explain the question if needed.
The 30-minute exercise is an experience of civility, a core characteristic of citizenship. The model of the meal could be replicated across the community among those seeking a more civil society.
You might be surprised to learn that this table is occupied by persons addicted to drugs and alcohol. They end up discussing being better citizens, but it is through the back door. It happens in the midst of their decision to get control of their lives.
They are at the table as part of a seven-month residential program to overcome their addiction. They came because they could not stay in the program otherwise. But in the midst of dealing with their addiction, they discover themselves changing in other ways.
They would not come here to discuss “citizenship.” They choose “recovery.” What they begin to grasp is that recovery involves community building at its most basic level. Our communities and nation need a chance to have the same kind of experience. This is what President Obama voiced as the need of the nation: to cross the many divisions we need to meet and to talk.
Fundamental to community is communication among differences. This table is in many ways the United States that we believe in, that we envision as “community”: Some are black. Some are white. Some have had resources. Others have had little. Some have functional families; others do not. They differ widely in education from college degrees to illiteracy.
How is it possible that from these troubled and misdirected lives comes a model of civility that our nation sorely needs. Can we more privileged learn from people in recovery?
The men were asked a final question: how this nightly meal and conversation with their peers assists in their recovery. To a person, they shared how their social skills, their courage to speak in public, and getting to know people of different races and lifestyles is changing them. They begin to see themselves carrying this message into the broader society through family, church and work.
Is this another example of “bleeding heart” wishful thinking?
No, it’s true; it’s reality. It is not perfect. Next month this table will be different. One or two participants may graduate. Others will leave for a variety of reasons, some to begin using again. For them, we hope that their experience at the table will serve them well and that they will seek treatment again.
We will never have a perfect table, either in our own homes or across our nation. Terrible divisions and mistreatment of one another will continue. But it can be different.
These men who gather together nightly for a meal on the North Side are witnesses to a different reality. To dismiss them lightly is to miss the great gift that they are in our midst.
This table is set nightly at Serenity Inn in Milwaukee.