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December 08, 2016
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Building community

Just about everybody knows the famous quote “Charity begins at home,” penned in the 17th century by an English churchman named Thomas Fuller. Or do we? Time to ‘fess up, dear readers! How many of you know the entire quote? Well, here it is: “Charity begins at home, but should not end there.”

It is the “should not end there” that so many people in our region have taken to heart recently in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Many grassroots efforts are underway to collect both money and basic necessities for devastated families who live only a couple of short hours drive from us. Our hearts (and our donations) go out to them.

This kind of generosity is one of the best qualities of our American character, and here in our rural communities we practice this virtue regularly. It seems like a week can’t go by without some fundraising event that someone has organized—perhaps to help a child combating cancer, or a family whose breadwinner has died, or somebody who’s sending gift packages to our soldiers overseas. You name it, a lot of us just step up and contribute because it is simply the right thing.

Hurricane Sandy relief is still very much needed, and now we usher in the annual holiday season of giving, too. Bell ringers stand with their red kettles in the cold to collect small change for the Salvation Army. Marines (and others) collect Toys for Tots. Individual communities have their own traditions and projects for holiday giving. Actions like these reveal the true heart of a community. Yet, this same generosity of spirit that we extend to those in need, we often fail to extend every day to many of our own neighbors and fellow citizens.

If charity and generosity are among the best qualities of our rural communities, one of our least attractive qualities is the kind of disrespect in public discourse, not to mention outright expressions of hostility, that people can succumb to when they disagree. Fracking comes to mind as an issue that has divided too many of our local communities into “us” and “them.” Witness also some of our recent local election campaigns that saw a few candidates waging personal attacks against their rivals, throwing civil discourse out the window and appealing to existing divisions in our communities to say whatever it might take to win leadership positions in our towns. Talk and actions like these do not enhance community, but despoil it. Is this the kind of community we want? We think not.

Politics as blood sport can be seen at all levels of government today, but in our small rural communities where everybody knows everybody else and we all must live together, can we not do better? If a community is dependent for its wellbeing on the quality of the relationships among its citizens, then relationships must be nurtured and common ground must be sought, cultivated and cherished.

So where do we go from here? We believe it is possible to build a community where what joins us is greater than what separates us, but it does take work, good will and cooperation among individuals and groups. This Thanksgiving, let us embrace the spirit of the holiday by joining each other at the same table and extending the same generosity of spirit reflected in our charitable giving to everyone in our own community—even those with whom we disagree. It will take respect, civility and good will. Like charity, these habits begin at home, but should not end there.

[For another take on Thomas Fuller’s thought that charity begins at home, see Jonathan Fox’s column on page 14.]