By April Lawson
Mack McCarter doesn’t stand out in a crowd, except for his gaze. He’s of average height and weight, with receding gray hair. When he looks at you, there’s a soft light in his blue eyes. You feel seen, safe and accepted.
Mack was a pastor and felt called to racial reconciliation since he was a child. After working in Texas, he moved back home to segregated Shreveport, Louisiana. One day, Mack drove into a nearby black neighborhood on a Saturday. He wanted to meet people, but no one opened their doors. He talked with kids on the street and kept going back, week after week. It took three months before the doors finally started to open.
Those Saturdays eventually turned into an organization that has transformed Shreveport a block at a time. Today, of the 300,000 people in the Shreveport-Bossier City metro area, about 50,000 of them support in some way Mack’s Community Renewal International. The secret sauce is Mack’s fierce love. As he says, “When I meet you, I assume there’s a bridge from my heart into yours. And I am coming over!”
People like Mack are everywhere, yet seldom draw attention to themselves. They are the people everyone seems to trust in the neighborhood. They are weaving connections at a time when communities, and this country, seem frayed and coming apart. They inspired columnist David Brooks and the Aspen Institute to start Weave: The Social Fabric Project, to find and support the people strengthening America’s social fabric.
The Weave Project began by cold-calling communities across the US, says Brooks. Weave staff contacted civic leaders and asked, “Who do people trust most in your community?” They kept asking until they found 25 or so folks who were mentioned over and over. Then the project hit the road, invited them to a meal, and asked about their lives and communities. David Brooks led the conversations.
Common themes emerged from the cross-country conversations. People kept mentioning hospitality, not in the usual way, but as a radical act. It meant an always-open home or 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 caregivers or “church ladies.” Others were teachers or business owners. One ran a distillery, another a coffee shop, and one was a parking lot attendant. Their way of life seemed to go against the grain of today’s self-striving culture. They made relationships and community success a priority, ahead of status, power, money and personal success. Often, in spite of personal hardship and pain.
For Katherine Hutton, she overcame a childhood of on-again, off-again homelessness and abuse, while managing to keep her heart open. She started her Open Hands Cafe, with just a few tables, in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans where she grew up. People come for the stuffed fish with crawfish sauce, the red beans and rice, and gumbo, though mostly for Katherine and the company. She likes nothing better than feeding people, and, as she puts it, “loving on them.” And she loves on every person who walks in.
“It’s been a beautiful journey,” she says, “but it has taken a financial toll on me.” After seven years, she’s about to move her business into her nearby home– built by Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina – because the business rent has gotten too high.
Weavers like Katherine are quiet rebels. In a society where people strive for themselves and independence, Weavers strive for others and interdependence. They treat most everyone like kin. They don’t take from life, they give to it and know how to receive what others offer. They look for what they share with strangers, not for 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, an ear or a hug.
Weavers don’t see themselves as doing charity work, notes Brooks. “’Charity’ is the ultimate dirty word. 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, he says, when families and towns are torn apart over issues and candidates, when suicide among teens, young adults, farmers and other groups is rising, we need more Weavers.
As one Weaver said, “I now see that what I do in my community has more chance of changing this country than anything that can come out of Washington.”