The other day, my daughter and I visited the Red Cross office to donate blood.
Afterward, me munching the little bag of popcorn I was offered to ward off dizziness, we agreed we’d done a modest “civic duty” that day.
Civic duty? Civic-mindedness? A few years ago, those were common American phrases, a positive way to describe being active in the community, a community that was cohesive and friendly where we all did our share.
What does it mean now?
Civic duty brings to mind my friend Mag and, recently, a woman named Pearl.
Mag, the mom of a childhood friend, embodied civic-mindedness in our small Nebraska town.
I would never have known Pearl Young‘s name, except she was one of 10 people murdered by a white supremacist in Buffalo, New York, on May 14.
Pearl, born in Alabama, moved to New York and married a pastor. She was active in her Pentecostal faith, singing, dancing and shouting her praise around the worship area with other congregants.
But she was much more than a Sunday Christian. A substitute teacher in the Buffalo public schools, Pearl taught Sunday school, worked at a soup kitchen and fed the hungry in a local park for years.
Interviews quote friends and relatives attesting to Pearl’s kindness, always “being there” at times of need, sorrow or celebration. A mom, a grandma, a good citizen, she had just come from a church luncheon to the grocery store where she was killed.
Mag and Pearl were kindred spirits, even though their lives and cultural experiences were far apart.
Mag, as a young widow, moved from the farm into town. She opened a newsstand and spent a career with the post office. But her reach went far beyond. She was active in our local Catholic church.
Like many civic-minded folks, she was a joiner, participating in groups ranging from the altar society to the Chamber of Commerce. She was elected to the public high school board of education and served for 12 years.
She was always in line when the bloodmobile came to town, and she adopted a downtown flower barrel each summer, planting and watering through the Midwestern heat to add beauty to our town. She was a top fan of local sports.
When I was a Jesuit volunteer, not only did Mag send me care packages at my remote Alaskan village, but she accompanied my mother for a visit, flying in on a small plane on a stormy night.
Mag eventually died of natural causes, but Pearl was viciously killed by white nationalism. Those are words — white nationalism — that we need to say out loud and hear condemned from the pulpit. They are the evil opposite of civic engagement.
In troubled times, the old civic duties like running for school board or volunteering to work at a polling place give us pause. Am I safe from the screaming minority? The haters? Those who, intentionally or not, inspire young men to kill?
Should I hunker down?
I don’t think Mag or Pearl would do that. They’d be right there, seeing church and faith as core to civic duty. They prized community. They’d be providing goodies to the bake sale, contacting their senator, writing a letter to the editor, bringing a loving message to a rancorous school board meeting, delivering a casserole in your time of need.
They would join, speak up, stand up, be kind.
They would be doing, as Mother Teresa advised, small things with great love. People like Mag and Pearl are the cornerstone of American civic society. Let’s be like them.