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Of Local Choirs and Community

What does it mean to have a “sense of place”? Though many Americans may be somewhat mystified by the term, Wilfred M. McClay, co-editor of the recently released book Why Place Matters, believes that college students actually get it: when he talks to them about “place,” he says, their response is “energetically favorable.”

These young people, McClay writes, are living in a “mobile, rootless, digitized world,” and they are seeking authentic, rooted community. They want a sense of context: a home and belonging that stretches beyond career and degree. Some may “hail from” Kentucky, or identify themselves as the local pastor’s son, or as a member of the “Johnson clan.” But others—many others—feel rather placeless. Some may have attended universities and found jobs states away from their childhood homes. Others may have grown up in a military family, shifting from place to place all throughout their lives.

In the midst of such moves and shifts, many use social media to build a sense of community: Facebook or Twitter help us connect with faraway family and old friends. This sort of community is good—but if McClay is right, it isn’t enough. “If we are to be citizens at all, we must be citizens of this place, of our particular town and neighborhood and state and nation,” he writes. “…As you move ahead with your life, you should try wholeheartedly to embrace the spirit of the places where you find yourself.”

McClay’s advice reminded me of an article by John-Paul Flintoff in the Guardian. Flintoff writes:

A few years ago, I became very worried about the planet and decided to Do Something. But what? I found some experts, and asked them. One was Dr David Fleming, who had invented a clever mechanism to incentivise individuals – and entire nations – to save energy. What, in his opinion, was the most important thing anybody could do to tackle the twin threats of climate change and resource shortages?

“Join the local choir,” he said.

At first, I admit, I found his answer annoying. Was he being cute?

Not at all. The most important thing, when trying to Do Something, the late Dr Fleming explained, was to build a sense of community. It’s hard for individuals working alone to achieve much.

Fleming sees community as integral to 1) serving a larger purpose or cause, and 2) giving individuals a sense of purpose and belonging. When Flintoff asked how to find his footing, Fleming pointed to the “little platoons.” In order to Do Big Things, sometimes you need to look homeward, to small things and small associations.

Choirs and clubs may seem trite, perhaps, likely to be populated by the elderly or middle-aged parents. There seems to be little appeal here for the young millennial crowd. However, it’s these sort of voluntary associations that serve to curate a sense of community. They require the sort of diligent commitment and fostered camaraderie that turns strangers into neighbors. Of course, it’s up to us to find the sorts of community activities that fit our disparate gifts and interests: if the local choir isn’t a good fit, perhaps a local symphony orchestra, tutoring consortium, volunteer group, or running club will suit.

As Flintoff puts it, “Community isn’t some kind of creature comfort… It’s built through work and commitment.” Whereas Facebook and Twitter let us curate our friend groups, following and unfollowing the people we like (and who like us), living in place requires something more difficult: a wholehearted acceptance of whoever lives next door, be they likable or no. Purposeful community involvement helps us build this sort of acceptance and neighborliness.

It may be that college students and other young people are searching for a “sense of place,” as McClay writes. But achieving this sense of community is never easy: it requires time, diligence, and—above all else—charity. However, to quote Wendell Berry, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.”


about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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