One night last month, hundreds of neighbors gathered in the grassy lot at Meadowbrook and Lee Roads in Cleveland Heights. It would have made a beautiful and joyful gathering — if not for the violent act that brought everyone together. Heights residents gathered to hold vigil for local business owner Jim Brennan, who was killed during an attempted robbery on a Monday afternoon.
I have mixed feelings about these kinds of vigils — for various reasons. But the final speaker’s words caught my attention. He pressed the audience toward living differently and invited the crowd not just to mourn and pray for justice and peace, but also to then turn toward the actual flesh-and-blood human beings standing nearby, introduce ourselves and learn more about one another.
“What we do here tonight we better live out tomorrow in our community,” he said.
That’s the moment I wanted to shout, “Amen!” I met some long-time residents I already knew and some I did not. I met a young man who works at Brennan’s Colony on Lee Road and lives in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodland neighborhood and was stunned — like many of us — over the violent loss. I met Terrence, an immigrant to the U.S. who has worked for years cleaning bars on Lee Road. I met a mother who held her infant son Sebastian to her shoulder as the crowd sang with lit candles:
We’ll walk hand-in-hand…
We are not afraid…
We shall live in peace…
These are the verses of a spiritual of the Civil Rights movement whose refrain you may recognize, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.”
But the truth is that if we leave our neighborly relationships on the surface — live “among one another, but not really with one another,” as a new friend recently said — we aren’t really going to overcome much. The final speaker’s charge is the ulterior motive behind my faith community’s potlucks this summer: building community. Building community — knowing and being known — is the only way I’ve ever seen the deep wounds we suffer one another and this planet overcome in any powerful way.
Potlucks aren’t the only way to build true community. But they are one way. That’s why a few of us from very different life stages, experiences, and East side streets will gather again this Sunday night: to get a little closer to embodying true community today.