In 2001, Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
The book did well, maybe in part because of that catchy title, and a new edition is out now. Its point wasn’t the collapse of bowling leagues, however. Instead, it was a broad look at how membership in community groups was declining in America and eroding what’s called social capital. Social capital forges bonds between members of the community.
Having a strong community makes our civic life and our democracy stronger.
When I first visited my husband’s family on the East Coast, his immigrant grandparents were still alive and there was a strong and cohesive Italian community. There were Italian social clubs and tenement buildings where relatives lived next door to each other, sometimes with Grandma in her own apartment on the top floor.
Although it was much different from my rural Midwestern upbringing, the community aspect was similar. People on the farm knew each other, and they knew who your grandfather was. If a farmer was sick or died, neighbors immediately gathered to bring in the harvest. The little one-room schoolhouse I attended had a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, Irish and Bohemians. But at lunchtime, we settled on a common grace.
These kinds of communities aren’t perfect. Sometimes they can be insular and exclude “the other.” But they provide a basis for social capital.
The block parties, the bridge clubs, the fraternal organizations, the parish picnic — a no-miss social event of my youth — the parent-teacher associations, the men’s baseball leagues that were prevalent in the small towns of my parents’ generation – these things made us a community.
Then, people starting escaping from these tight communities. We left for college. Suburbia changed us, too. Parishes got bigger and bigger and more impersonal. The advent of the attached garage meant people could slip into their house with barely a wave at their neighbor. Air conditioning took people off their front porch and away from the backyard fence.
As we emerge from social isolation, it’s a theme that hits home: we have to decide what aspects of community are important to us. For example, how much is our parish a true community, where we honor common values and freely discuss our differences?
We all deeply missed the Eucharist, this source and summit of our faith, during our time of isolation. But parishes must be more than a place where we dash in from the parking lot on Sunday morning and then leave, forgetting that the Body of Christ is also alive in the community itself and not just in our liturgy.
As Americans, we spend a lot of time scrolling through social media and ruminating about national affairs. We have definite opinions about national political figures. But are we involved in local politics? Or in our local political party
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our country bonded together to forge social capital on a national scale. We had a national examination of conscience.
But is our local parish involved in a commitment to racial progress? Mine is.
Social capital begins with knowing who our neighbors are and who sits next to us in the pew. It means cutting back on our social media addiction, joining a book club, a ski club or a faith sharing group, and establishing a bond that forges community.
There’s an old expression, “charity begins at home.”
Social capital begins there, too. Of course, that doesn’t mean it ends there, but without a healthy community, we won’t have a healthy democracy.