Monday, September 26, 2011

Community: context and interpretation

Almost twenty years ago now, when I first began working in inner city East Dallas, someone suggested that "community interpretation" would be a helpful process to pursue.  Whoever said or wrote this nugget of good advice compared the process to interpreting a passage of scripture or great literature.  The fine art of exegesis could be applied to social context.  Intriguing notion as I considered it for the first time. 

Working at this enterprise for quite awhile now has proven its validity, better its necessity.  These days I find myself looking at built environments, social and public institutions, formal and informal groups of people and even basic community services as essential pieces in any useful community understanding or interpretation. 

Of course, central to this exercise is people.  People will always occupy "square one" in any effort to "exegete" a community.  That's where I started, that's where I'll end. 

So, what about people?

Mrs. Alexander.  Nonis Alexander has been volunteering in our food pantry for years now. She is the first face you'll likely see as you enter, hers the first welcoming voice to  catch your ears.  She loves people.  She loves her role in the community.  She loves her church.  She loves me!  And, of course, I love her too.  Not sure how old she is, but she's getting on up there.  But age has only deepened and refined the power of her life and influence.  She is battling with serious health issues these days.  But hospitalization or treatment sessions don't keep her away from her station in her community for very long at a time.  She is an amazing person.  Not a materially wealthy person, almost no one in the community is, she commands great social, spiritual and social capital.  An indispensable member of the community, we couldn't do without her, and she knows it!  In my view she draws health from her station of significance and connection to others.  Lot's to learn here. 

Stranger at the gas station.  Yesterday I stopped at a filling station to purchase fuel for the week.  As often happens here, I was approached by a rather disheveled gentleman carrying two prescription drug bottles.  "Sir, I'm from Bastrop, you know where the fires were so bad," he began.  I shot back, a bit too quickly I expect, "Come on, man, don't game me like that!"  He claimed to be telling me the truth.  As we talked, he never convinced me that his opening approach was exactly true.  But, he did share that he wasn't homeless, but living in a rented room.  He shared current medical records from Parkland.  As we talked, he moved to the real issue of the moment for him.  His disability check wasn't due for another week and he was hungry.  He wanted a sandwich and offered to go into the store and let me purchase a meal for him.  I never know how to handle these situations, and I know my decisions would usually disappoint the experts who can share "the right approach" easily.  I gave the gent a little cash.  He thanked me and I watched as he went to the store to buy himself a sandwich.  Still wondering if he's ever been to Bastrop.

Shopping cart for a car.  I've seen the pair before, but always when I'm driving, like yesterday on the way to church of all places!  I haven't been able to talk to them yet.  They create an unforgettable, uncomfortable sight, that's for sure.  One woman pushes a standard grocery shopping cart down the street.  The other woman is seated, better crammed in the cart itself, evidently unable to walk.  In short, the cart doubles as their primary means of transportation.  No doubt homeless, and I imagine highly "shelter resistant," the couple hammers out some sort of life on the streets.  I'm determined to meet them, in the meantime, I catch myself wondering about the sort of life they pursue.  These two women press hard against my heart and mind a fundamental community question:  Why can't we find a way to improve the lives and the lot of these most unusual neighbors?  Healthy communities figure out answers. 


Tim Merriman said...

I was pleased to find your blog and the community context and interpretation tags. My wife grew up in Dallas and we train and teach about community and heritage interpretation all over the U.S. and the world. We also write and our latest book is Put the HEART Back in Your Community. We continue to look for stories about restoring people's desire to help each other and the community. So many of our modern innovations build barriers to communication, helping each other and the authentic history of our communities and lives. Thanks for your stories about encountering people and deciding to help.
Tim Merriman

Larry James said...

Thanks, Tim. Good to meet you and know something of your work.

Given your mission, I think you will like this story. . .it is one of the most important in terms of shaping our work over the past 17 plus years here in inner city Dallas: