By April Lawson
For as long as he can remember, Mack McCarter has felt a duty to serve. A former pastor in Texas, McCarter returned to his Louisiana hometown in 1991. It was there that he began spreading a new message — one of racial reconciliation — in the historically segregated city of Shreveport.
One Saturday, McCarter, who is white, drove to a majority black neighborhood to meet people. When no one opened their doors after he knocked, he chatted with a few kids on the street instead. McCarter kept going back, week after week. It took three months before doors finally started to open.
McCarter’s Saturday efforts eventually led to Community Renewal International, a faith-based nonprofit that has transformed Shreveport by facilitating stronger relationships among community members. Trained volunteers might organize neighborhood social gatherings, for example, or help out when someone is sick or hungry. The nonprofit has also built 10 community centers in low-income, high-crime areas. Called Friendship Houses, they offer everything from family movie nights and service projects to after-school educational programs. In the neighborhoods where the centers operate, crime has fallen by an average of 52 percent.
Service-minded neighbors like McCarter are everywhere, yet most seldom draw attention to themselves. These humble leaders are weaving connections at a time when community ties throughout the U.S. are frayed and risk coming apart. Inspired by their work, the Aspen Institute, along with the New York Times columnist David Brooks, launched Weave: The Social Fabric Project, an initiative that identifies and supports the people quietly working to strengthen America’s communities.
The project began by cold-calling towns and cities across the U.S., said Brooks, Weave’s former executive director and chair. They’d simply contact civic leaders and ask, “Who do people trust most in your community?” As they began hearing the same names over and over, the Weave staff hit the road to connect with these trusted community members. Brooks would invite them out for a meal and ask about their lives, their communities and their work.
Common themes emerged from the cross-country conversations. For example, people kept mentioning hospitality — not in the usual way, but as a radical act. To them, friendship and generosity meant an always-open home or simply showing up for others without hesitation or expecting anything in return. When someone was in trouble, these “Weavers” said they always found a way to help.
Their jobs didn’t define them. Some were teachers or business owners. One ran a distillery, another a coffee shop, and one was a parking lot attendant. But what they all had in common was a dedication to lifting up others in the face of today’s self-striving culture. Like McCarter, these people made relationships and community success a priority ahead of status, power and money — and often, in spite of personal hardship and pain.
In an interview, New Orleans native Katherine Hutton shared how much of her early life was marked by intermittent homelessness and abuse. Instead of isolating herself from strangers, she welcomed them by opening a restaurant in the same neighborhood she’s always called home. Today, people flock to Open Hands Café not just for the crawfish, red beans and rice, and gumbo, but also for Hutton herself. She provides food — and company — for her customers, doting on every one of them.
Weavers like Hutton and McCarter are quiet rebels, working for the common good in a society that values the individual. They emphasize what they have in common with strangers, not how they differ. And they’d rather risk intruding on someone’s privacy than failing to offer support when someone seems isolated and might need a visit, a hug or a sympathetic ear.
Weavers don’t see themselves as doing charity work. “To them, ‘charity’ is the ultimate dirty word,” Brooks said. “In their view, we all need each other. We are all taking this walk together, helping each other with mutual needs and dreams.”
At a time when many in our country feel disconnected and lonely, when families and towns are torn apart over social issues and politics, and when suicide rates are rising, we need more Weavers, said Brooks.
Weavers know that effective change starts at the local level. They know that small gestures can snowball, leading to community-wide impact. And they know that simply showing love can be the most game-changing act of all.
As McCarter put it, “When I meet you, I assume there’s a bridge from my heart to yours — and I am coming over!”