A call to cross streets and other lines that divide us

How well do you know your neighbors?

I don’t know mine well enough. But neighbors are more than just the people who live on your block. They are people you work with, whose kids go to school with your kids, who share your humanity yet maybe not your ethnic origin or skin color or buying power.

The elections last fall were just more evidence of our isolation from each other. In my own church, a vote last fall on a matter that proved controversial also proved we didn’t know one another as well as we assumed.

What is happening to us and what is the remedy?

When sociologist Robert Putnam wrote the book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” he pointed out the loss of social subgroups in the rhythm of our week that once provided sympathy for our neighbor and satisfied our need for belonging. We used to bowl in leagues; now we bowl alone (or only with friends and family). We used to have strong civic organizations like Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, Exchange Club, Masons, Shriners, etc. These still exist, but they find it harder to attract new members these days, especially younger ones.

When participation declines in groups that bound us together across demographic lines (yes, I know they once were bastions of segregation but credit efforts over time to change that), the tendency is to fulfill our need for community virtually instead. We spend more time on Facebook than we do face to face.

Facebook knows this and wants to be part of the cure, even as it acknowledges it has contributed to the disease. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has issued a lengthy manifesto laying out the ways it will seek to promote physical social encounters. “[L]arge percentages of our population lack a sense of hope for the future. It is possible many of our challenges are at least as much social as they are economic — related to a lack of community and connection to something greater than ourselves. As one pastor told me: ‘People feel unsettled. A lot of what was settling in the past doesn’t exist anymore.’

“Online communities are a bright spot, and we can strengthen existing physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline. In the same way connecting with friends online strengthens real relationships, developing this infrastructure will strengthen these communities, as well as enable completely new ones to form.”

I was not the pastor he mentioned, but I might have been. The church sees this unsettling and feels its effects, too. But religious communities continue to be places of belonging that can be a laboratory for community as unity-in-diversity. That is, if we don’t all hunker down only with “people like us.”

Genuine faith leads us toward others, not away from them. If we are moving away from people, it follows that our faith itself is weakening. If you want a vital faith, get engaged in a spiritual community that challenges you to “love your neighbor as yourself.”