On my first trip to suburban southwest Ohio, the sheer promiscuousness of retail plazas and subdivisions alarmed me. Want to shop at Kohl’s, JC Penney, Walmart, Target, or Costco? The land was overflowing with them. Much of it had been farmland a decade or two ago, but then came the prosperity of the 1990s and the new millennium, and with it the developers and their ugly strip malls. I grew up among the Amish, among plain houses and rolling hills. In comparison, the suburbs seemed too ugly and fragmented for me to ever love. The endless row of crisply divided subdivisions spilling over into monstrous shopping centers seemed to express more eloquently than words ever could the fragmentation and consumerism of modern life that everyone laments.
But in the middle of that suburban scene, I eventually found something surprising: deep belonging and solidarity in community—the kind of belonging and solidarity that I’ve come to believe is essential to close America’s deepening class divides and to help working-class young adults to achieve their aspirations for stable family.
When my wife and I first moved to the suburbs we struggled to find the kinds of friendships we had left behind in New York, where we had attended college and where many of our college friends had remained. There was also the tension of transience—we were contemplating graduate school, perhaps in Washington D.C., which would mean returning to a community of people vocationally similar to us. So while we wanted to find community in Ohio, we also did not have that much incentive to do so. After a few years of interviewing working-class young adults about their stories of forming families, we figured it was time to move on.
But then I found myself on a weekend retreat at my parish with about thirty other men. During the retreat, a “giving team” of men—men who have been meeting regularly for the previous year—share their life stories with the “receiving team.” The men’s stories surprised me: here were mostly white-collar men, successful in their careers, baring their souls about some great suffering that they experienced—a mental health issue, their parents’ divorce, a loved one’s death—and how they responded to the suffering. There they stood, grown men, crying and hugging and reaching deep into their pasts, and giving to us what they had experienced and learned. Their stories were profound gifts.
Before the retreat, some of the men on the receiving team weren’t even sure they wanted to be there. By the end of the weekend, though, we on the receiving team found ourselves moved, and not a little shocked, by the vulnerability and honesty we had witnessed. The men on the giving team referred to each other as “brothers,” and they seemed to mean it, too. We wanted that. So most of us committed to meeting regularly for the next year, to prepare to be the next giving team. Now it was our turn to share our stories with each other.
For those from fragmented families, belonging is in short supply.
Amber went on a similar retreat during the same time, and the experience changed us. We barely knew our fellow retreatants, but somehow we felt a deep connection and kinship with them. We felt some sort of belonging taking root, and we wanted to stay see it come to fruition. We were discovering what the journalist Tina Rosenberg says about the experience of community among those who happen to live closest to you: it’s an “acquired taste.” We decided to postpone grad school plans, and to stay in Ohio.
During this same time, our interviews with working-class young adults were showing us that, especially for those from fragmented families, belonging was in short supply. We saw how young adults wanted to form stable families and good marriages, but the legacy of fragmented families, and distrust, and substance abuse, and a fragile economy menaced their lives and frustrated their aspirations. We began to see that these were challenges that could not be “solved” mostly by policies or pro-marriage messages, though those things can help. Mostly, working-class young adults need what we all need, what we all want: a deep belonging in a community, the kind of community that would support their aspirations for lifelong love.
Also during that year, Pope Francis catapulted onto the international stage, talking about the importance of “accompaniment.” And we began to ask ourselves some questions that challenged us. Do we know the single mother who struggles with depression, and wants to get her life together, but struggles to get there? Do we know her name? And do we know her, not as a charity case, but as a person with a story and aspirations? Do we know the jobless man? Do we know his name, his story? Do we as a parish know their names? Do our places of work pay them just wages?
We began, as well, to confront our own assumptions about who “they” are. We became troubled by, as David Mills puts it, “the ease, even quickness, with which we accept censorious explanations of other people’s failures.” Mills describes this tendency in the following way:
The unmarried man “didn’t settle down when he had a chance,” the unmarried woman “has been too picky.” The long-term jobless “need to look harder” or “take what they can get” or “should have worked harder so they didn’t get laid off.” We expect the odd and awkward to live on the sidelines because they must have chosen in some way to be odd and awkward…. Suffering people would change their lives if only they followed the instructions—the five points for this or the ten steps to that. Success is so easy the unsuccessful must have chosen not to succeed.
Rather than succumbing to these knee-jerk reactions, we found ourselves wanting to enter more deeply into the life of the single mother, the jobless young man, the divorced woman, and to encounter the person as a person, as a neighbor and friend. And instead of assuming the worst about others, we wanted to experience the same kind of solidarity that we found at our parish.
We need that solidarity, all of us do—not just the single mother, but also those of us who have a good marriage and intact family and stable career. We need that solidarity to transform our too-easy assurances about ourselves and other people into something like compassion (literally, “to suffer with”) and a deeper love. And the single mother needs it too, and not just as a client of another social service or government program, but as a person, as a participant, a contributor.
This in-flesh compassion and solidarity, we have come to believe, is the most important solution for America’s contemporary class divisions.