I recently attended the fourth in a series of council meetings in my township, Alberton. The room was full again because council was scheduled to vote on making a zoning change so Weechi-it-te-win Family Services could purchase a farm, where it would open a new facility for youth.
Dozens of worried, angry people have spoken up and shouted out at the council meetings. “Our way of life” is threatened, said one young man who is starting a family.
Across the highway from the projected facility, For Sale signs have appeared in several yards—a visible signal of protest although the owners must not be serious because their prices are highly-inflated.
I first learned the language of threat used with the phrase “our way of life” during the 1950s emanating from white supremacists in Alabama as the civil rights movement heated up. My home was then in Ohio.
I knew something was wrong about race relations, but couldn’t figure out how it affected me and my way of life. So in the late ’50s as a student at Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia), I wrote and delivered a speech for an oratorical contest condemning segregation and racist thinking.
It was actually a pretty safe thing to do. In those days, we generally believed that racism was wrong, but it didn’t occur to us very often that people like me could do something about it.
After the speech, a few people came to me to suggest that I may have stepped over the line and some people were offended by my speech.
It was all very polite. Nothing like the doomsday, “our way of life” protests I felt in Alberton last week. Or maybe I just was not listening very well.
The other day I learned that some Americans say that President Barack Obama’s health reform agenda is dangerous because it threatens “our way of life.” Although I am living in Canada, where I enjoy public health care, I occasionally sneak a peak at American news where some commentators tell me how bad the Canadian health system is.
I could not have known this by living here in Canada because for the first time in my life, I go to the clinic for preventive check-ups regularly and I am getting healthier.
I only have lived here for five years, so I might have a myopic view. In Chicago where I lived before, I only went to an emergency room if I was really sick—and I worried that they would clean out my billfold.
This ongoing tussle with the shadowy side of our common life brings me back home here to Alberton township, where council voted down the application for the native-run youth facility on zoning grounds. The “our way of life” people and the strict zoning interpreters on the council won out for now.
I wonder what council would have done if zoning changes were requested to pave the way for a university computer research facility. Would that fit into the Business Park zoning designation.
That would have really challenge “our way of life.” And if the paper mill that employs 650 people would close or downsize, what would that do to zoning and “our way of life?”
Now in Alberton, I am faced with the same “way of life” problem I faced 50 years ago when I was a student in Virginia. Do I stay quiet, keep the lawn mowed, and try to be nice to my neighbours? Do I make a sign “Natives, Non-Natives, There is room for all of us” and walk or bicycle the 40 or so miles of Alberton roads inviting my neighbours to a conversation.
I am not sure how I feel about walking these roads alone.
The tone of the meetings in the council chamber is stuck right now, but what happened in Alabama tells me that things don’t stay stuck forever—even though Birmingham is not yet perfect.
The North American continent is stumbling towards a “way of life” that could be good for all of us. The unfinished project of equality, and democracy, sometimes gets in the way of “our ‘current’ way of life.”
The lawyers scramble for the spoils when we have disagreements like this. Law helps, but it doesn’t change my deeper side.
I learned to try to be true to what is right in Sunday School a long time ago, though I am not always successful. Education helps me sometimes, but I forget very quickly.
So how do I listen to my moral conviction, and outrage, and help harvest them into a “way of life” that awakens the best for all of us—native, non-native, timber worker, unemployed, professional, youth, and retired?
Adjustments to an always-changing “way of life” may be inconvenient in the short run.
I think I can handle this walk through the valley of shadows, but I will only know as I do it one step at a time. I invite my neighbours to walk with me.