Finding friends in an unfriendly world

November 30, 2011

In my post on November 22, 2011, I compared the Occupy Movement and open source software collaborators—two forms of community in which people are connected with one another by shared values and commitments rather than by geographical proximity or kinship. I also referred to the church, which is another specialized community. People across time and around the world associate in small groups, rehearse “enduring attitudes toward first and last things” (to quote philosopher Susanne Langer), and then continue with ordinary life as people transformed.

My reflections on the church as community were shaped, in part, by a front-page article in the Portland Oregonian, which was headlined with a question and answer: “Do you feel lonely? It’s not just you.” The article was based on a study by sociologist Miller McPherson who reported that one person in every four “has no one with whom to discuss very important matters.”

The study indicated that the average person has only two close friends; twenty years ago, the number would have been three. McPherson declares that loneliness has been growing rapidly and that she has “never seen a change that big in something so basic.” She suggests that Portland is different; something about her city and its people increases the likelihood that they will find friends. Maybe loneliness is not as great a problem in Portland as in other cities across the country.

McPherson’s report can be paired with Robert D. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, in which he offers a thoroughly documented description of changes in American social behavior since the latter part of the 1900s. Participation in all kinds of organizations, including churches, bowling leagues, lodges, and service clubs has dwindled significantly. Americans, he argues, are losing the social capital that they need in order to maintain a life that is rich, full, and satisfying.

Some have suggested that these changes in life are caused by the nature of life in cities. People are not thrown into ongoing, close, personal relationships as they were when everyone lived in smaller communities. The result is that people spend more time isolated in private homes or personal automobiles, and they are lonely.

Another reason may be the fact that most people have to devote more time and energy to making a living than used to be the case. Today, two-income families are the norm, and even with two incomes most households live less secure lives than was enjoyed by one-income families a generation ago.

Whatever the cause, people today need to find communities of love and support where they can find strength and to which they can offer their strength in return.

To read the rest of my thoughts, click Finding Friends To listen to a brief spoken meditation on a similar theme, see a recent video posted by Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“Do you feel lonely? It’s not just you,” by Stephen Beaven, The Oregonian, June 24, 2006, A 1.

Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places, edited by Calvin Morrill, David A. Snow, and Cindy H. White (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

Communities of the people: in the cloud and on the streets

November 22, 2011

In a book that has become required reading for people across a wide range of disciplines, Jono Bacon analyzes the “art of community” as it has developed among people around the world who collaborate in developing open-source software. At the same time that my friends and I have been reading this book, we have also been watching the Occupy Movement as it has taken shape in our city and across the nation. My understanding of the nature of free communities has been significantly enriched by the juxtaposition of these two phenomena.


The leading characteristics of community in the streets have been summarized by historian and ethicist Gary Dorrien:

“The NYC General Assembly is a group of activists, artists, and students involved in the occupation. To the extent that it claims an ideology, it identifies with the anarchist tradition, which shows through mostly in the group’s process: egalitarian, autonomous, leaderless, and committed to a modified model of consensus. The organizers were, and are, determined to operate by at least 80 percent consensus, moving as slowly as consensus requires. They have developed a system of hand signals that enhances communication in group setting and have nurtured a powerful sense of community that many occupiers, including many of my students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University have experienced as transformative.” Gary Dorrien, “The case against Wall Street,” Christian Century (November 15, 2011, 22-29.

In his fully detailed book–The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation–Jono Bacon describes the characteristics on the art of community in the cloud. My summary of these features:

  1. Focuses the work with a mission statement
  2. Depends upon volunteers donating time and expertise
  3. Requires that contributions improve operation of the electronic systems that are the focus of the community
  4. Gives high priority to merit as recognized by participants in the effort
  5. Recognizes the importance of scientific and technical knowledge and skill
  6. Requires leaders and managers who shape and advance the process
  7. Adapts easily to the specialized needs of business, academic, and scientific institutions

There are similarities and significant differences between these two forms of people-based community. Still another form of broadly based and dispersed community—the church—has its own set of characteristics that make it similar to and sharply different from the cloud-based and street-based communities.

To read my first attempt to think about these forms of community, click here: The Art of Community.

“Bike swarm” helps Portland keep the peace

November 19, 2011

Revised and updated:

All that the bicyclists did was ride around and around the contested parks through a long, sometimes tense, mostly peaceful night in Portland, Oregon—November 12-13, 2011. Watching on the continuous television broadcast, you could see the cyclists coming along SW 3rd Avenue through the darkness, their headlights softened by the wispy fog of the damp night air.

Each time the “bike swarm” approached, the tightly packed members of Occupy Portland who filled the street and the solid phalanx of Portland police officers arrayed against them yielded space, almost like the parting of the Red Sea when Moses raised his arm (Exodus 14:21). Fifteen or twenty cyclists at the beginning and as many as a hundred during the early morning hours, they traveled around and around and around the contested space.

They meandered along at an easy speed and stopped for red lights at intersections. Ordinary bikes, for the most part, a tall bike now and then, cyclists in jeans and hoodies, some with helmets, the bicycle brigade conveyed a sense of friendly goodwill that eased tension and softened the tightness of the knots of people.

Jonathan Maus, who rode with the swarm off and on from about 11:45 until 5:45, described the ride this way:

As cops in full riot gear encircled the parks, a stream of people on bicycles would ride by — dinging bells, lights blinking — and the very appreciative crowd would yell “thank you!” and give high fives as we passed. The ‘bike brigade’ (as I heard one reporter call it), seemed to provide everyone with a little stress relief. The passing line of bikes also helped break the monotony of what was a very long morning.

An especially significant moment came near the end of this intense but remarkably peaceful period of time. Again, quoting Maus:

At the end of the night, after occupiers respected a request from police to retreat back to the parks, all that was left of the police force was a line of cops in riot gear blocking SW Madison Ave. The crowd chanted, “Who’s blocking the street now?” and the bike brigade rolled right up to them. The cops relented and the bikes rolled through. A magical moment and one that saw bikes take center stage for a brief — yet very poignant and pivotal moment.

Although I have rarely participated in demonstrations, I now wish that I had been part of the bicycle swarm. This small group of Portlanders used the unique features of human powered, two-wheeled vehicles in a wonderfully creative manner.

By rolling along through streets jammed with people, they maintained the principle that these streets are there to provide places for traffic to flow.

By their personal vulnerability on their fragile machines, they accented the importance of using modest modes of demonstrating power.

They manifested a whimsical spirit that seemed able to soften both sides of the often-tense face-offs.

While the intention of many (perhaps all) of the cyclists was to support Occupy Portland, they did so in a manner that was distinctly different from the main features of the encampment itself.

Portland has embraced bicycling as an important part of the city’s life, and cyclists are always to be seen throughout the community. Despite the generally positive attitude of the public toward the “bicycling community,” there are continuing tensions, some of them the direct result of bizarre behavior by cyclists. On this one long night, however, a  few cyclists earned the respect of the city in a way that increases my delight that I too am a cyclist in this wonderful place.

Note: Later that Sunday, the Portland Police Bureau completed its announced goal of closing the Occupy Portland encampment. During the week since then, Occupy Portland has continued to hold General Assemblies, marches, and demonstrations. Police officers have demonstrated a steady determination to allow assembly and free speech while keeping streets and public places open for their ordinary uses. There have been moments when the harsher aspects of confrontation have briefly taken place, yet a certain degree of civility has continued to characterize the occupy movement and the peace officers of the city.

Bicycles continue to be an important element in the  Occupy Portland story. Again, Jonathan Maus reports from the vantage point that only direct participation can provide. In his description of the actions on N17, he comments on the humanizing effect that police officers on bicycles bring to engagements that might otherwise be much more tense. 



Portland shows that “soft answers” work

November 14, 2011

With many other Portland-area people, I spent most of the early morning hours of Sunday, November 13, watching local TV channels give non-stop, commercial-free coverage to street drama of the highest order: the closing of a tent city on city property.

For five weeks Occupy Portland had used two city parks as the site of an increasingly dense tent community. On the previous Friday (Veterans Day, it happened to be), Portland’s mayor announced that at 12:01 A.M., the rules and regulations regarding park usage would be enforced. This meant, of course, that Occupy Portland was being given the official notice that the occupation of those parks would have to be discontinued.

The chief of Portland’s Police Bureau then spoke. It was clear that a full plan of action had been developed aimed at an orderly, peaceful enforcement of all rules and regulations regarding these parks. In answer to questions, both city leaders spoke respectfully of Occupy Portland. They repeatedly stated that they would not discuss tactics.

Because I am in downtown Portland three or four times a week, many of these times on my bicycle, I have either cycled or driven through the Occupy Portland encampment. My interest in the enforcement action was increased significantly because my wife and I are members of First Christian Church, six or seven city blocks distant from the tent city.

An even greater sense of connection is the fact that the police chief and his family are members of our church. He and his wife are elders, regularly offering prayers at the communion table.

The question that has haunted me is this: How would his Christian faith affect his actions as the leader of the city’s instrument of power and control? Although I have not discussed these matters with the chief, here is what I observed.

The newscasters frequently used the word restraint to describe the police presence. And the word is appropriate, because throughout the nightlong engagement five factors had to be apparent to any observer:

  1. Police officers maintained a steady, disciplined presence that shaped every aspect of the engagement of Occupy Portland and public authority.
  2. They had the full capability, if they had chosen to use it, of  rapid and violent, coercive action that could easily have resulted in a pitched battle with injury, loss of life, and significant property damage.
  3. They manifested their power more by persuasion than by duress.
  4. Throughout the tensest period of the action, only two people were injured.
  5. A serious level of respectful relationship was maintained with leaders of Occupy Portland, a relationship that had gradually developed during the five weeks that the tent city had been allowed to exist.

When I drove to church about 8:30 Sunday morning, the primary drama had played itself out. A biblical text popped into my mind: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) The next verse continues the idea: “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Other verses in this chapter also recount themes that resonate as I think about Portland’s most recent street drama:

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit…Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention” (Proverbs 15:4, 18).

Especially interesting, in light of Occupy Portland’s primary purpose, which is to call attention to the increasingly unjust distribution of power, privilege, and wealth in American society is this verse:

“In the house of the righteous there is much treasure, but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” Proverbs 15:6.

At the beginning of the 9:00 o’clock service at First Christian Church, the pastor offered a prayer that acknowledged the events that had galvanized the city’s attention. Only then were we ready to move into the rest of the morning’s Eucharistic liturgy.

For me, however, the most significant liturgical language of the morning was included in a prayer when the congregation’s offering was received. Another of the congregation’s elders, a science teacher in a Portland area school, gave thanks for the “love and leadership” that had been manifested in the actions of the night. Although he probably was thinking primarily of the attitudes and actions of the mayor and chief of police, this combination could appropriately be used in reference to some of the people who gave voice to Occupy Portland.

Do religious convictions and practices that focus on love, respect, persuasion, and risking self for the sake of the public happiness work in real life?

In Portland, on a dreary weekend in November, they did. And for this confirmation of religious principle I give thanks.

Note: The photo by Beth Nakamura is published in The Oregonian and can be accessed here: The Oregonian

Death for Many: Art Appreciation on Old Slavin Road

November 10, 2011

Since reading John R. Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, I’ve been waiting for a good day to explore a forgotten place on my bicycle. On his blog, Red Electric, Rick Seifert has suggested just the place: old Slavin Road in South Portland. This meager, partially abandoned street meanders through a gully on the east side of Barbur Boulevard just south of downtown Portland and then heads west into Hillsdale Village where John A. Slavin, his wife Emma Ross Slavin, and their family lived more than a century ago.

Slavin was born of Irish stock in Kentucky in 1825 and came to the Portland community when he was twenty-four. He acquired a large tract of land south of Portland and built a small house. In 1864, he built a big house at the intersection of what is now Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway at the top of the ridge in Hillsdale.

When my family moved to the Hillsdale-Multnomah community in 1941, the section of Capitol Highway that runs from Hillsdale down to Barbur Boulevard was still called by its old name, Slavin Road. For seventy years I’ve wondered what old Slavin Road below Barbur Boulevard was like, but as far as I can remember I’ve never been down there.

A reasonably warm, almost bright November day, was the time to explore. I cycled south on Barbur, turned east on Hamilton Street at the Adventist Church, and took an immediate right onto View Point Terrace. In a short distance, it takes a right angle turn to the left onto Seymour. Just before Seymour reaches Corbett Avenue, Slavin Road takes off to the right. I think that at an earlier time, Slavin Road continued toward Portland on the course that now bears the Corbett name.

Remembering Stilgoe’s advice, I rode at an easy pace as the road twists its way along the lower edge of the right of way that the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a century ago and which in the 1930s became Barbur Boulevard. Some of the dwellings probably date from the years after World War I, but more recently built two- and three-story apartment complexes have filled in vacant spaces. Through breaks between houses and trees, I could see Interstate 5 and the Willamette River off to the left.

After perhaps a mile, I reached the barricade where the road is permanently closed. Co-Motion and I walked around the barricade and then I continued riding into the darkening forest, with a thickening carpet of fall leaves obscuring the rough blacktop surface of the road. A short distance later, in a wide space, the road completely stopped. A trail overgrown with tree roots marks what I took to be its continuation. Time to turn back.

I retraced my route to Barbur Boulevard and continued riding south to the spot where Slavin Road used to come out of the gully and head up the hill toward Hillsdale. Although access is blocked by a ten-feet high chain link fence, the old paved road is still there for a couple of hundred yards. Following Seifert’s instructions, I walked back a little distance, and there the art he described shines on the concrete retaining wall that supports the Southern Pacific-Barbur Boulevard right of way.

Not good enough for the Portland Art Museum, I readily admit, but well worth the time of a bicycle explorer on a cloudy afternoon.

Stilgoe was right. Bicycling is a liberal art.

The Beautiful Feast of Life

November 7, 2011

The authors of Saving Paradise, How Christianity Traded Love of the World for Crucifixion and Empire declare that worship enables people to experience a world of ethical grace.  

Two thousand years of Christian life and work! How could anyone grasp even the broad outline of this history, let alone the vast detail? Or discern patterns of development and understand the motivations of the people whose life energies are displayed in this panorama of life? Yet this is what Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker venture to do in their book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of the World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).

They have organized the vast body of lived experience, as well as physical artifacts and written documents, around the tension between two motifs in the religious tradition flowing from Jesus of Nazareth. One theme is life in this world, which already is paradise. The other theme is death in this world in order to enter paradise, which exists only in heaven.

The book began as a pilgrimage in which the authors sought to solve a puzzle: Why was the crucifixion largely absent from Christian art, architecture, and iconography for the first thousand years of church history? Their pilgrimage took them to a great many places where the art of the first millennium could be viewed: easily accessed places like Rome and Constantinople, but also to some of the remotest locations where Christianity came in early times and flourished enough to build and adorn churches and monasteries, many of them long since abandoned. They visited museums to study Christian art and canvassed the church’s literature, especially the theology of Eastern writers and the poetic writings of people in East and West.

At first, these studies only confirmed their supposition; indeed the crucifixion was essentially absent from the church’s worship, devotion, art, and theology for the first thousand years of church history. Then came the second phase of their work, which was to discern the organizing motifs that had, in fact, characterized the life of Christians all of those centuries. One day, the realization came to one of the pilgrims and soon thereafter the other agreed. Instead of crucifixion and death, the church for a thousand years focused attention upon paradise and life.

The image was material and immediate, referring to the world in which people already lived, a world in which beauty, abundance, equality, joy, and other delights were enjoyed—sometimes fleetingly and in hope more than reality—despite the harsher aspects of life. It also referred to a transcendent realm in which the delights of life right now were intensified and fulfilled while the problems and shortcomings of immediate experience were overcome and set aside forever. Read more. . . . Beautiful Feast of Life