Building the Civic Infrastructure with an Ecumenical Frame of Mind

Hands Red White and Blue Raised

In 1996, the Interfaith Council of the Murrieta/Temecula Valley asked me to make the opening remarks for that year’s ecumenical service. As the City Manager of the City of Murrieta, pretty well versed in public speaking, you would think that this would be a walk in the park.  Well, guess again. This was not the usual “State of the City” address before the members of the rotary club or the local chamber of commerce. It was not in response to an investigative inquiry from the press nor was it a presentation before one of many professional associations. It was not about city hall or its interworkings.  It was something else.  It was about community.  It was about inclusion.

Yet what exactly was I suppose to say? Am I to make a connection with scripture?   Whose scripture? The Rabbi’s? The Ministers’? The Priests’? The Imam?  The depth of the question is deeper than the answer but for a biblical layman, this was intimidating. So, as most of us have been taught, talk about what you know.  Speak with your heart. Don’t fake it.  From the Bimah within the Temple of the Congregation B’nai Chaim, this is what I had to say:

Welcome and Good Evening

I am very honored and humbled to be here with all of you this evening.  I am also proud as we come together as individuals and neighbors collectively as a community.  I also must say how uncomforable I am being before you. You see, I have been struggling as to how to open tonights program. In front of all of you and the majority of the Valley’s clergy, I am hardly the most learned individual in discussing ecumenical or inclusionary services. But I can speak to you as a member of OUR community. I can talk to you about my own membership.

This event reminds us that we are all a part of something greater; that notion of where we live, work, play and function as members of the greater community. In our daily routines, we individually, and collectively, are responsible for the successes and failures of our community.

John Parr, the (then) President of the National Civic League, has stated, “The formal and informal process and networks through which we make decisions and solve community problems has been called the Civic Infrastructure.” Successful communities honor and nurture these systems across social, cultural, economic and institutional strata. There are recent examples of  cities with both strong and weak civic infrastructures:

Denver 1989–At the deepest point in a regional economic recession, civic, neighborhood, business, and governmental leaders worked together to pass the largest infrastructure bond issue in the history of the city;

Los Angeles 1992–A Year after the “Rodney King” civil disturbances, the failure to rebuild trust and the physical damage caused by localized rioting was the result of power struggles with a total lack of agreement about what should be done, how it should be done, and who should do it;

Newark 1992–When the first Rodney King verdict was announced, the city did not explode. Conversations occurred on the streets between people who had been working together to avert the potential for violence;

Southern Florida–Failure to respond effectively to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, on-going fragmentation of metro Dade County, and the continued racial and ethnic tension threaten the regions economic stability and futue prosperity.

Four examples–Two with strong civic infrastructures and two without–

Why the difference?

The strength or weakness of each community’s civic infrastructure: The invisible structures and processes through which the social contract is written and rewritten in each community.

To reinforce John Parr’s own words, I would argue that the following points be included in drafting a community’s social contract:

  1.  That we respect difference, because we honor the human spirit and we recognize that we are all in these communities together and none of us is going anywhere without each other. Lets find ways to respect each other;
  2. That we accept responsibility, not just demand things of the government, of our institutions or of each other, but that we accept individual responsibility. We agree that there are social responsibilities, duties and obligations we accept;
  3. That we will teach. We will teach our children and we will teach each other. We will teach each other about our cultures. We will teach each other about the things that bind us together;
  4. We will celebrate our humanity, our capacity for understanding, for affection, our need for human contact. We will slow down the relentless dehumanizing assault, the disrespectful language, the violent acts, the pace of a society that moves so hard and fast that detracts from our ability to think civilly and relate to each other;
  5. We must pledge to set up places, forums, communications, conversations, and systems to allow all of these things to occur; places where we can listen, places where we can teach. It is not good enough to leave this to chance; and
  6. We will project an ethic of inclusiveness–an ethic of civility.

It is my opinion that this evenings event marks our initial draft of our own social contract with each other.

Given the recent events of Charlottesville, southeast Texas and now western Louisiana, it reminded me of this presentation made more than twenty years ago.

(John Parr passed away in car accident in 2007)






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