It’s Bigger than Hunger
I’m new as a food bank director — only three months on the job, there’s still plenty to learn. But as someone who has been in the nonprofit sector for over 25 years, one of the constants I’ve noticed about volunteers who want to make a difference in the world is the way they speak of themselves and the work they do. It’s about the nature of real community. This reflection focuses on what I’ve heard about in places like Mechanicsville and Belle Plaine. It’s about connection and purpose in small towns.It’s pretty common for people to have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. Yet nobody contends that all or even most of these people are actually friends. Most Facebook friends wouldn’t loan you $100 if you needed it; many wouldn’t visit if you were in the hospital or even listen to you intently if you were stressed and wanted to vent. Or, with me, for instance, the county supervisors I have as Facebook friends…well, I’m not going to ask them & families to vacation together. (Though these people might be a lot of fun, really!)
The ancient Greeks had a different view of friendship, and they might have found it odd to call online connections “friends.” For the Greeks, friendship had three purposes:
- to create a relationship of mutual improvement between two people. This wasn’t to give individuals an outside, reflective connection to another in a way that could both challenge and support them;
- to have fun – this is how we normally think about the nature of friendships;
- to be good “citizens of the polis,” to improve of the town that one lives in.
It’s an uncommon view of connection between people. For instance, when was the last time you heard of a group of guys in a fantasy football league all going to a city council candidates forum, or donating to a common nonprofit?
Yet, what I’ve seen among volunteers in schools, food pantries, businesses, and churches in towns we are part of serving is a reformation of the idea of relationships between people. Folks I’ve met with in these places come together to feed hungry people, to do food drives or donate funds, to create Backpack programs for kids, or other similar things – less because they want to ‘solve a problem’ that they know the faces of those who need food, and they believe that feeding the hungry is what it means to be a good citizen in their place. The phrase “we take care of our own”, in the best sense of that phrase, comes to mind. Like the ancient Greeks, these volunteers want to connect with others for the purpose of being good citizens.
Motivation in many cases is not about doing. People don’t say to me, “I needed to DO something.” They say that “Washington, IA, needs this,” or “Seniors in Vinton can use the help.” They speak with a vision of belonging, not solving problems; of being good people, not doing good things. It’s as though they’re saying: “of COURSE, we’d do this – this is who we ARE.” And the other beauty of this is that this is helping people they know. This is putting things right for the kids of people you grew up with. This is helping neighbors, improving the schools they went to, aiding the retiree who has been a part of the community for years. It’s a great vision of belonging, and it’s not anonymous, distant, & unconnected. This kind of giving back is what it means to be part of small towns and small schools in Iowa.
Making a difference for the hungry happens in neighborhoods and in schools in Cedar Rapids, too, of course. With greater mobility of people in poverty, and just sheer numbers, it’s not as easy to be as connected to people in a larger place, and so one is less likely have the same connection as you can find in a small town. There’s a special beauty about belonging to each other that can only happen in small places. And it’s really rewarding to connect with people who work to help each other, who are more classically Greek in their friendships, if you will.
A final way to look at this is: part of the work of the HACAP Food Reservoir in these less populated places is to support the connections, the social capital, and the pride that people have in being part of their town. When they speak of the school BackPack program in Washington, Iowa, they speak with pride and ownership, and of how the community came together. That does happen in Iowa City; but it’s not as possible to be as tightly connected. I’m grateful to be able to recognize that some of the work I do is to be part of relationships with small businesses, Boy and Girl Scout groups, schools, and churches in small towns that all come together. That ‘coming together’, that connection: it’s also an important part of keeping small towns vital.