Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #030. First published in the St. Cloud Times Jan. 26, 2010

I'm always on the lookout for illustrations of my column's theme, the renewal of human community. You can theorize about it, and that's worth doing, but it's when you see renewal happening that hope pushes back against fear and cynicism.

One way I've seen renewal happening is through civic engagement. Civic engagement is the practical expression of a maxim attributed to Lotte Scharfman, a refugee from Hitler's Germany: "Democracy is not a spectator sport." Democracy requires participation in the public sphere.

I've been present at two unique occasions in early 2010 that demonstrated civic engagement of a high order, and I'll be involved in a third a week from today that I hope you'll be part of too.

First was GREAT Theatre's "Fiddler on the Roof." It was spectacular. I'd love to tell you why, but the Times frowns on Opinion columns that read like reviews, so I'll limit myself to one feature of the production that makes my point.

Community theater is a laboratory for civic engagement and renewal. Almost all the cast and crew — and there were lots — were our neighbors. Students (elementary to college), teachers, librarians, IT folks, fitness instructors, car dealers, bankers, department store associates, writers, homemakers, former holders of public office were all in it together, a real ensemble.

They did together what none of them could have done alone. They formed new relationships, built social capital, and gave their audience enriching moments of shared experience — civic engagement and renewal at its best.

Second was the 27th annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, has been championing civic engagement by people of all races for more than a hundred years, often against monumental resistance.

This community still has a way to go in the renewal of race relations, but it was exhilarating to be alerted — both by what was said and by the presence of black and white, young and middle-aged and old, in the crowd of more than 200 — to how far we've come since 1982, when Mary T. Howard and Todd Ewing started the St. Cloud chapter of the NAACP.

From the Discovery School fifth-grade music class (black and white children together) who sang "The Dream of Martin Luther King," to the keynote speaker, Reatha Clark King (no relation, though a close friend of the family), a research chemist, former president of Metropolitan State University and former executive director of the General Mills Foundation, the invitation and challenge of engagement in the civil rights movement was clear.

As she said, those who have gone before built a platform from which we can move higher.

The third occasion is yet to come, one week from today. At 7 p.m. Feb. 2, Minnesotans will assemble at party precinct caucuses, where Senate District convention delegates are elected. These gatherings are crucial for our democracy, the place where we leave our spectator seats and get onto the playing field.

Caucuses are where we consider, together, the way our personal and community life are interrelated (a reality so powerfully and poignantly portrayed in "Fiddler"), and how we can affect the connections between them. They are our platform — and resolutions adopted at the caucuses can influence the parties' platforms.

There will be straw polls in the crowded gubernatorial races. These are non-binding, but the flood of phone calls from campaigns suggests that candidates consider them significant, and it should be clear to everyone that it makes a big difference who our governor is.

The caucus system isn't perfect, but it is civic engagement at its best in both the details and the big picture of our common life. It's the arena in which we can all lend our weight to the NAACP's goal of "political, educational, social, and economic equality."

Caucuses are where personal and community responsibility meet, where community renewal gets intensely practical. Don't be a spectator. Get engaged. Be there.