Something is gravely amiss in our culture today. Every day there’s a new headline that, no matter how carefully crafted, simply cries out, “HELP!”
The public was stunned and outraged last year when David and Louise Turpin of Perris, California, were arrested for the longterm abuse and neglect of the majority of their 13 children, ranging in age from two to 29.
It’s the kind of abuse that is frankly unconscionable to most people in modern-day America. To think that anyone of sane mental status could torture their own children in such a cruel and grotesque way is impossible to comprehend. The couple was recently sentenced to 25 years to life, after their children read prepared statements that were a curious cocktail of shame, forgiveness, resolve, and resilience.
Now another California couple is in the news for keeping their 22-month-old twin boys locked in stacked cages (actually, modified cribs) that were secured to the wall. The couple, Ramon Zendejas and Mercadies Williams, were arrested last Friday on weapons charges, in addition to charges of child endangerment, drug possession, and manufacturing a controlled substance. Authorities later dropped the child endangerment charges, reportedly because they believe the the couple was actually trying to protect their 22-month-old twin boys from the dangerous items all over the house.
Both these cases are alarming in their own right. But one must wonder how many similar situations are never discovered. Which brings up the obvious question: how can this happen?
Granted, these two cases are different in many ways. But they are alike in that they should drive us to carefully consider what we can do to help prevent these kinds of egregious offenses.
But before we do that, we must think critically about what we’ve lost in contemporary culture, notably the sense of true community in which neighbors know one another on a personal level.
I’ll be the first to admit that things are different today. One must be intentional to really know your neighbors. And unfortunately, even in my charming suburban neighborhood — after living here for almost 10 years — there are still neighbors I don’t know. (I’ve even had a neighor run away from me when we attempted to deliver homemade cookies. What’s up with that?)
We are all busy people — way too busy, most will readily admit. Yet we’ve pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re way too busy, and that’s just how it is. Gone are the days of sipping hot coffee or tea on the front porch with neighbors until the crickets begin their nightly serenade, and the fireflies start to glow.
Instead we have garage doors that essentially function as vault doors, quickly letting us in and just as quickly closing us in, all with the touch of a button from the convenience of our vehicles.
Long work hours and hectic schedules of family activities though are no excuse for not knowing our neighbors. Sometimes I think we just convince ourselves that the people around us don’t want to be bothered. But what if our neighbors are thinking the very same thing about us?
Indeed, what if this epidemic of loneliness that is often explained in weighty research-laden reports, what if it’s largely a product of faulty assumptions?
What if everybody simply assumes that no one wants to be bothered, interrupted, or inconvenienced by a good old-fashioned conversation?
What if we all began to make an effort to connect with people in our own corners of our own neighborhoods? Would this make a difference? I think so.
I have often bemoaned the loss of true community that was so palpable in my formative years. Yes, I know that was 30+ years ago in rural Mississippi. But there was much more space between neighbors than exists in most cities and towns today. It stands to reason that physical proximity alone is no indicator of relational intimacy.
What was it about my neighborhood? Let’s see. There were the Christophers next door and the Peacocks and the Williamsons across the road. When we first moved to the country, we actually had a ‘party line.’ That’s just a fancy way to say that several houses shared a phone line. Each home had its own unique ring pattern. I remember being frustrated on numerous occasions when I’d pick up the phone to call a friend, only to hear Mrs. Peggy laughing and chattin’ up a storm with someone.
Our little circle of friends was tight. We dropped in on each other, just to visit — or to bring a homemade dessert or a box of fresh-picked veggies from the backyard garden. We played games together and had dinner together. Those were the days.
But my point is this: It would’ve been incredibly difficult for the Christophers, the Peacocks, or the Williamsons to keep children under lock and key in deplorable conditions for any length of time — because we were all up in each other’s business. We knew each other — I mean, really knew each other. Somebody would’ve heard something eventually, because our interactions were frequent and often unplanned.
And yes, we were all church-going Christians — although we attended different churches. In some ways our little pod of people functioned like the early church. Here’s how the Apostle Paul described them in Acts 2:44-45:
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Selling their possessions?! Actually, I remember several times when we did combined yard sales. (‘Garage’ sales were an up-town term; none of our carports were enclosed.) These events rarely brought any big bucks, but they provided us with one more opportunity to know our neighbors and others nearby.
Were people busy back then? I think they were. But they weren’t always out of breath and out of time and out of energy. They had ‘margin’ in their lives before that kind of margin was even a concept. The whole pace of life was a little slower.
Will a greater emphasis on intentionally building relationships and fostering community prevent every case of child abuse and neglect? Hardly. But I’m convinced that just giving in to an over-busy, self-centered way of life is creating a whole lot of collateral damage.
No matter what, I’m sticking to my mantra: One person can make a difference. Let’s make a difference together all over our country. Whether you live in a house or an apartment, in the city or in the country, you can be a catalyst for community right where you are.
As is the case in the old starfish tale, we won’t be able to save everyone, but we can make a difference — one person at a time.