It is the second Friday of the month, a time I always look forward to. About 9:45 a.m., I enter the First Baptist Church in North Adams through the side door on Eagle Street. I am greeted by Carolyn Leab, who is making coffee and setting out munchkins on the table in the basement meeting hall. Pretty soon, other folks start to trickle in, smiling and giving hugs to friends and co-workers. By 10:00 a.m., the chatter is deafening, only the worst flavors of munchkins are left, and it is time to begin the monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
The 50 or 60 participants sit in a circle, as they always do. It is a physical arrangement that reminds me of North Adams. Standing on Main Street in the city, one is surrounded by imperfect concentric circles of streets, all lined with houses and the unseen people who live in them. It is a comforting, almost idyllic sight. For me, it feels as if I am being quietly watched over by caring neighbors, and cradled by the mountains that form another imperfect circle.
Executive Director Al Bashevkin calls the meeting to order. US Representative John Olver, the special guest, is expected to arrive at any moment. As is the custom, each person in the circle identifies himself or herself, until the circle is completed. Then Bashevkin opens the floor for announcements and brief comments.
We hear about the latest food drive, the elder service agency that needs more volunteers, the program for young parents that is losing government funds, the after-school programs that are enriching the lives of our kids, and the fear of a war in Iraq. It is a half-hour well spent. In the middle of all this, the tall and professorial-looking Olver saunters in and unobtrusively takes a seat in the circle. For 90 minutes, he will be one of us.
After a short break, which sparks animated discussions, networking, and coffee refills, it is time for the congressman to have the floor. His long legs stretching out from an uncomfortable wooden chair, Olver talks solemnly about the inevitability of a war in Iraq, and the impending budget crisis that will reduce services to seniors, disabled people, veterans, and schoolchildren.
The Capitol Hill veteran does not have a reputation as an orator of note, but his methodical and reasoned commentary has a simple eloquence that is disarming. He reminds me of my father, who always thought carefully (sometimes to a fault) before saying anything. It drove my mother crazy, but I have come to admire this quality.
He has little good news to bring, and the questions following his observations reflect a sense of resignation that we are going to have to stick together and find other ways to provide services to our neighbors in North Berkshire. Still, I have a brighter attitude as I head to lunch at noon. The newspaper I am half-gazing at between bites of fruit salad tells me I’ve got much to worry about, but I am optimistic.
Sitting in the circle once a month reminds me that there are a lot of good and caring people out there, people who will not let fear and harsh times lower their expectations. As we head into spring, the season of hope, we need to join that circle, or form a new one. More than ever, we need each other.
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Albert Schweitzer