What holds us together? What makes society society? Or community community?
Social critics and philosophers, from the Frenchman who celebrated democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, to 20th century English skeptic Michael Oakeshott, have praised civil association and voluntary associations. That is, human beings conversing and working together not as governors or the governed but as citizen volunteers in common rule or enterprise.
It’s not social services from government that give our life together depth and texture, they said. Not political pressure groups. Not even churches. But it is civil associations — what you might call neighbors and friends in bonds — that strengthen both individuals and communities.
I have visited three civil associations in Toledo recently. And one of the things that is interesting to me is that they are all three flexible and practical. They respond to human need as they find it.
One is Adelante, Toledo’s Hispanic American nonprofit. It has long been on Broadway in the South End. Adelante’s mission is to educate, advocate for its clients in the various governmental bureaucracies at all levels, and offer support services, in the neighborhood, city, and region. Adelante also offers direct assistance — from tutoring to help for young mothers and about-to-be mothers.
A second voluntary association is the Padua Center, a sort of neighborhood center and tutoring service in the Kwanzaa Park neighborhood. It is also a nonprofit and is located in an old Catholic church rectory on Nebraska Avenue.
Like Adelante it is in an “emerging neighborhood,” which means a poor neighborhood that refuses to quit. Padua is “Christian” in inspiration and action and run by a nun — Sister Virginia Welch. And, like Adelante, it simply tries to meet people where they are, and help them.
Throughout the day, Padua practices hospitality. Each morning, the center serves coffee and donuts to whoever comes through its doors. Food and kindness: Like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers. Like Jesus and his followers. No preaching, just neighborliness. Padua runs a neighborhood garden. Its space and its produce are open to any and all.
Padua also runs what it calls its “Padua Possibilities” program.
When a student receives a suspension from school and that student loses vital days of academic learning, Padua can step in with its alternative placement program. This consists of tutoring, behavior modification, and moral coaching. The tiny staff at Padua try to involve the parents — “inconvenience them a bit,” says Sister Ginny — sometimes to underline the need for the kid to change and sometimes to change the whole family dynamic. They also try to teach “peace education” to children who may be scrappers.
Presently the Padua Possibilities Program services Robinson School, Martin Luther King Academy for Boys, and Sherman Elementary.
Both of these civil or voluntary associations do what they do for very little money — roughly the cost of printer cartridges for the municipal government of the city of Toledo for a year.
At both places, when I stopped by recently, the spirit of the late Jack Ford hovered. Our former mayor founded Adelante and he was a close friend and supporter of Padua. They still talk about him at both places.
And then we have the Sylvania Franciscan Village — a unique civil association, in my life experience. It describes itself as “a new way of being together.”
The Franciscan Village does not have one goal or end, but fosters the work of many people with many life-enhancing projects and goals. It is deeply rooted in the values of St. Francis of Assisi — that is its only unifying theme.
The Franciscan village helps to support Lourdes University and Bethany House (the residential shelter for battered women), but it also sponsors a guesthouse in Haiti, wellness and health-care programs, an old folks home, The Rev. Jim Bacik’s lectures at Lourdes, other free public lectures and workshops on everything from theology to urban gardens — all manner of things. Last year it sponsored a forum and workshops by two parents who lost children at the gun slaughter at Sandy Hook, Conn.
Two Catholic sisters are responsible here too — Sister Mary Jon Wagner, OSF, head of the Sylvania Franciscan sisters of St. Francis, and Sister Janet Doyle, OP, head of the Franciscan Village.
De Tocqueville viewed voluntary organizations as the essential expression of American democracy and social vitality. Mr. Oakeshott believed something similar. He said that civil associations are what law and the state ride upon.
In Toledo, these three nourish our community the way rain nourishes the Earth. We often take such organizations for granted and sometimes don’t see them at all; they are invisible to most of us most of the time. But they are organic to our community in a way that government can never be. They connect people. They teach people. They help people. They inspire.
Keith C. Burris is the editorial page editor of The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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