One of the dangers facing the future of democracy is the terrible fragmentation of our culture. As the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, there's less opportunity for people of different social classes to mingle together. Because the number of hours people work has risen considerably over the past 20 years, people have less and less time available to spend with family and friends, or to talk with neighbors. In a climate like this of increasing alienation, the spirit of community - and even democracy itself - withers.
Enter the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks. Founded in 1867 by a group of NYC actors, the original idea of the Elks was to provide a space for people to meet on a regular basis and be jolly. Hence the original name for the Elks: The jolly corks. Conviviality and connection were at the heart of a great order that would eventually include the worthwhile goals of helping handicapped children, keeping kids off drugs, and promoting American patriotism.
I felt that very spirit of conviviality and connection this past Sunday on a bus trip with other Hoboken Elks to the annual picnic fundraiser at Camp Moore in Haskel, N.J. (Camp Moore, a summer camp for handicapped children, is funded entirely by the New Jersey State Elks Association). Because we were on small-sized yellow schoolbuses, people could talk easily with one another regardless of where they sat. Stories and laughs were exchanged as friends and acquaintances got a valuable chance to catch up with each other. While at the picnic, Hoboken Elks mingled nicely with Elks from Bayonne, Palisade Park, Tenafly and other lodges located within the "East District."
On the bus ride home, spirits were so high that we sang along to oldies playing on CBS FM. I found singing with others to such classic tunes as "You're just too good to be true" by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, and "Ain't no mountain high enough" by Diana Ross and the Supremes, to be a joyfully connecting experience. Aside from being a celebration of music, it reminded me how the simple, pleasurable act of singing along with other human beings can buy itself be a powerful community builder. (As a teacher, this makes me ponder the possibilities of allowing song a greater place of centrality in my classrooms).
Which brings me back to democracy. Democracy, for its survival, requires that folks of all different backgrounds mingle on a regular basis to make conversation, share stories, and exchange ideas. What better place to do this than within the framework of a solid community organization that provides a structure for doing such amazingly good works as raising money for handicapped children? If more people could be made aware of the community and democracy restoring possibilities of the Elks, perhaps the declining trend in Elk membership nationwide could be reversed - and America's future strengthened.
Past Exalted Ruler