Six years ago I received a phone call from a group of Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn, NY. They asked if I would be interested in helping them build a city from scratch in rural Kansas. For a Catholic farm boy from rural Minnesota, this became one of the greatest opportunities of my life.
Not because I got to build the city. That would have been great, but the project fell apart before it even really got started, the logistics of relocating intact a community of Orthodox Jews halfway across the country too daunting for us all to pull off. The opportunity came from how the experience changed my spiritual life and helped me understand the value of community.
I was brought up Catholic, but I don't want to pretend that my experience was normal or typical. It may be, but I understand now that faith and religion are what we make of it. I struggled many years to make it work for me, trying to adapt my life to the teachings I was receiving and trying to place those teachings into a context I could relate to. When given the choice, I quit the church, came back again, drifted away, came back.... I don't think this is abnormal for a young man.
Much of my periods of disillusionment and most of my periods of devotion centered around my own life. My faith was very much about me. If I did the right things and lived a good life, I would end up in heaven. Jesus died on the cross so I could have eternal life. I had, or attempted to have, a relationship with God, and that connection was between God and myself. There were times I felt alone (like Army basic training) that this brought me great comfort, but many times when this relationship was daunting, overwhelming and - ironically - isolating. I tried very hard - even seriously investigated whether I had a calling to the priesthood - but ultimately felt like I failed at the effort more than I succeeded.
In 2000, I had the opportunity to visit Italy for six weeks. This would be my first trip abroad and I was excited to experience life in a largely Catholic society in the heart of Catholicism. I looked at it as an opportunity to walk amongst people who lived their faith as part of their community. The trip was fantastic, but it was anything but a deeply spiritual experience. I can sum it up with one example: Participating in mass at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City, the Italian woman sitting in front of me took three separate calls on her cell phone, including one on her way to communion. Religiously, I was disillusioned. Was a life of substance and faith simply not possible within a modern society?
What my eyes were not seeing, and what my English-only ears were not hearing, was the fabric of the community. Walking with a dear friend of mine through the streets of one small town in Southern Italy, I asked her why she - a very smart, very accomplished but quite unappreciated Italian woman - did not move to America where women are given more opportunity. She had lived in the United States for a year and, with that experience of my world, told me flatly that I did not understand la dolce vita, the sweet life she had there surrounded by her family and friends.
The Hasidic helped me to understand this better. The ones I came to know live deliberately as a tight community in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. They dress alike. The men grow their beards. The women shave their heads. They have their own schools that emphasize the teaching of Hebrew texts. Their children don't typically mingle amongst the sexes. They speak Yiddish. They eat kosher foods and have cleansing rituals. The ones I met did not have television. They even have their own ambulance services as well as their own state-sanctioned court system.
All of this is very strange to the typical American. It is sometimes controversial too. A proposal to put a bike path through one of these deeply Hasidic neighborhoods was aggressively opposed by the Hasidic community. They did not want what in comparison to their conservative dress would be scantily clad people biking through their neighborhoods. I understand the bike advocates that were upset by the political clout the Hasidic voting block used to have the path moved. For a country that is supposed to be a melting pot, the way the Hasidic have clung together as a group can sometimes be hard to understand and a little bit threatening.
There are other parts of their life that are, however, incontrovertibly beautiful. My most endearing Hasidic friend - his name is Moshe, also called Mark - lived in 2005 in a very small apartment with his wife and three children. By small, I mean far smaller than the college apartment I shared with my brother. His living room also served as a dining room and, at night, a bedroom for the older children. These were tight quarters. Despite this, the family had taken in two young (and very cranky) infants during my time there. Why had they done this? I was told that the parents of these children were having a tough time and they were trying to help out. Did they know these parents? Not really, but they needed help.
I saw example after example of this type of beautiful community awareness. We would walk along the street and, as if Mark was some type of Jewish Santa Claus, the kids would gather around and he'd stoop down and say hi to them. We'd cross the street and everyone would greet each other, most often by name. He'd tell me something about many of them - their family history or relation to his. We'd dine with different collections of people; some engaged in our project, some working on a new school, some dealing with a social issue and some just to chat. The feeling of community in all its joy and sorrow, all its greatness and imperfection, was omnipresent.
It was this experience that started me on a transition where my Catholic faith went from one of a personal and rather self-serving relationship with God and into one of seeing the teachings of Jesus through the prism of community. Jesus was, after all, a teacher to the poor who taught how to live together, in communion with God, during the oppression of the domination system established by the Roman Empire.
Love thy neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If someone wants your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Do not notice the splinter in your neighbor's eye without acknowledging the beam in your own. The story of the good Samaritan. These are radical teachings for creating a just world here and now in our own places.
No story captures this community-centric view more than the story of the feeding of five thousand. Growing up, this was a story of a miracle. Jesus, a divine figure throughout his human life and thus possessing powers greater than any of us, turned five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed five thousand. What I took away from this is that Jesus had supreme power, but I never understood why - especially in a time of brutal hunger and suffering like the first century AD - he didn't just feed everyone. Here's the passage from Matthew, Chapter 14:
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over - twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
What if this isn't a story about the exercise of divine power but something more applicable to you and me? What if this is a story about community? What if the message is: if we share what we have, there will be abundance for everyone? In antiquity's version of the modern children's story Stone Soup, we all give the little we have and the community prospers. This is not an un-American idea. These are actually the principles our country was established around.
They are more real to me now than the faith of my childhood. I see it most in practice today when I am fortunate to spend time with my Hasidic friend. In the brief three hours we got to hang out together last Friday, we talked about his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Mark told me he felt bad about not going to visit him enough, that he felt a strong obligation to care for him and some others that were not doing well in his community. "I feel fortunate to be able to help them," he said. "And God knows, I may need others to help me someday."
Mark took me to the new World Trade Center, the site of Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial. It was two days before the 10-year anniversary and there was a lot going on. I reflected on that feeling I think we all had in the days after the attack. That one you would have liked to "bottle" and hold on to. It wasn't bipartisanship the way our crass politicians would have us believe. It was community. It was that notion, however fleeting, that the person next to you was your neighbor as Jesus would have defined "neighbor." It was the realization that we are connected, that we are all in this together. In the midst of such despair, it was a beautiful feeling that many of us remember vividly.
As I prepared to leave for the airport and my flight home, Mark and his family were preparing for the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. I asked him what it meant to him, the weekly Sabbath. He picked up his Blackberry and held it for me to look at. "All week I focus on this. I always have business or something going on. Always texting. Always working on something. At sundown it stops, and for just one day I shut it all off and focus on the things that are most important."
Those things - prayer, family and community - could go a long ways towards helping many of us today.
Thank you for indulging me today in this post. I realize it is outside of the standard themes of finance, infrastructure and placemaking that our readers have come to expect. I thought it might be acceptable in the wake of the 9/11 remembrance to talk about faith and community. That and this is what was on my mind this weekend. I hope I have not offended anyone and I hope everyone understands the respect and reverence I accord every thoughtful person's beliefs, whether they are mine or not.
Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth. Strong Towns is seeking tax-deductable, $25 donations from 100 readers to create a video version of its Curbside Chat presentation.