cathy-communitycathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

Recently, I visited a city in the American Midwest and found my encounters with strangers intriguing. In this still segregated community, a smile offered to an African-American generated a comment and a laugh, a relationship.

I do not know how easy it would be to cross from conversation to friendship in the middle of Illinois. An American reminded me that the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan is still in that state, so there might well be both a deep hunger to tear down the walls that segregate the society and resistance.

Our community is not that divided, but there are distances, distinctions. We discriminate between those we know and those we are not connected to. I started to ponder the kind of daily contact that happens on our streets. Do we pass people without looking, or do we encounter them?

So I invite you to imagine that you set out to take a walk through Owen Sound. Imagine that you have errands downtown.

Head out along 8th or 10th Street as traffic hurries along, a bus, trucks, cars, a motorcycle. When you get to 2nd Ave., the light is green for you, and you cross the street in front of waiting vehicles. Do you notice who is driving them?

Turn along 2nd Ave. where someone is unlocking the door of their shop. "Good morning," they say. You answer the same.

A couple doors down, someone is washing shop windows. They glance over at you, and turn back to their work. What do you do? Look away? Smile? Say good morning?

Keep walking, glancing at shop windows. You meet an acquaintance. "How are you?" they ask. "Fine," and you walk on.

Step into a shop. You are greeted by an associate who asks, "Can I help you?" "Just looking," you answer. Maybe you find what you are looking for, but if you don't, you have to go back to the one who offered to help you, and admit, "Actually, I can't seem to find...."

Back on 2nd Ave, you walk along to 9th Street and turn west. Make your way through the people on the sidewalk outside Tim Horton's. As you cross the bridge, do you look down to the river, see the fish ripple the water and the cats hunt?

At this point, I ask you to step out of the imagined journey. What relationships would have deepened on this walk? What barriers were reinforced? Who would you be closer to, and who would feel more distant? Did you learn something about anyone you met?

In the contacts we have we can be like billiard balls that bounce off each other and careen in opposite directions. Or, the interactions can be sticky so that when we engage with the person something remains with us and with the other.

If we turn away from the people who come near, it is like taking a pair of scissors to the thread that connects us. A community is a woven fabric providing a cloth that connects us, supports us, embraces us. Building a healthy community requires contact that reinforces relationships.

So let's walk back. Before we go, look down at the river. Listen for birds and frogs.

Cross in front of Tim Horton's and smile at the young woman with the tattoo that covers her arm from wrist to elbow.

Go into another store and tell the person why you are there. Say that you know where to look, or invite them to help you find what you need.

Back on the street, you run into another old friend, and when they ask, "How are you?" tell them about the high points or the low ones of the last couple days. Ask how they are doing, and listen to their response.

When you pass the window washer, compliment their work or sympathize with having to do that job in this kind of weather.

As you cross the street, notice who is sitting at the red light. Greet the woman pushing the stroller toward you with "A lovely day!" And laugh when she says, "we could use rain."

As you head home, know that you encountered your neighbours, strengthened the web of community at least a little.

Cathy Hird is a writer, minister and farmer living near Walter's Falls.


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