Small Town

In October, the New York Times ran an article on the post office as the heart of a community.[1] As most of us know, post offices are under tremendous economic pressure.  The use of the Internet, e-mail, electronic bill pay, and alternative shipping providers has meant the volume of mail and the demand for postal services has decreased.  I heard someone recently call the post office simply a delivery system for junk mail. [2]

All the economic questions aside, though, what struck me was the similarity in the way people in smaller communities view their libraries and their post offices.  I have lived in large cities and in small towns; there is a different pace in smaller places.  I think part of the reason is that people become interdependent.  They invest energy in increasing their “social capital.”  They watch out for each other.  As for post offices and libraries, these institutions are natural gathering places for people; they are where rural folks catch up with their neighbors.  They are public buildings open to all.  Everyone is a “member” of the post office and the library, just by virtue of walking in the door.

The Times article talked about people exchanging garden produce in the post office; that’s not an activity that is foreign at all to the staff at our library.   People even bring us baked goods when they come in to make copies.  And as for the post office,  I know that I saw the magic of small town life in action when I arrived there to mail an important document, lacking a few coins from having enough to pay the postage.  I was waved on by the desk clerk who took me at my word when I said I’d be back in a bit with the rest–he tossed the envelope into the waiting basket and it headed out to the truck to make my deadline.

There are small institutions in every part of rural America that are struggling right now.  Small churches, small libraries, small post offices, small businesses.  Somewhere we got infected with the idea that “big” and “consolidated” and “growth” are all supreme goods.  Those that live in small towns, though, know that when things get big and grow, something of the personal is lost.  As the Times quoted one person, “I just wish that they would leave our post office alone,” Ms. Bowling said. “If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.”  Another interviewee said, ““You’re throwing the little people, the rural people, under the bus.”

Will the local post office survive this assault?   It appears certain that changes are coming, but then changes are coming to many of our institutions.  I like what my friend, Rev. Chuck Warnock of Chatham Baptist Church wrote about “the church as abbey” when he was thinking about the small town congregation: “The old Celtic Christian abbey [was] a center for worship, refuge, hospitality, learning, art, and community. The ancient abbey embraced its neighbors in adjoining towns and countryside as its parish, and served the needs of the community. The Celtic abbeys were not closed monastic compounds that excluded the outside world; rather, they were open to travelers, neighbors, inquirers, and those seeking help. Every person they encountered did not show up for worship on Sundays, but the witness of the abbey impacted the community it served every day of the week. “[3]

Impacting the community we serve every day of the week–not a bad mission for any of us in small town institutions.

[1] “Where post office is the town’s heart, fears of closing,” New York Times, October 7, 2011.



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