first steps toward learning your neighborhood culture

Culture is the living, breathing, ever-changing sum total of human experience. It encompasses the whole of who we are and how we relate to each other (or do not relate at all), whether for bad or good. We often hear about American culture as a whole. Yet, most of us understand that America is comprised of many cultures within its borders, and exponentially increasing sub-cultures beyond the major categories of ethnicity, geographic region, language, dialect, religion, social status, and so on. It is often possible to distinguish between certain parts of a city, noting differing attitudes, city codes, geography, bodies of water, transportation portals, cultural artifacts such as historical buildings or their lack, buildings and roads in states of repair/disrepair… All of these factors contribute in part to the overall culture.

Is it possible to learn the culture of a specific neighborhood, or even a section of a neighborhood? Yes. But it takes time and personal interaction with locals. The tools of your trade? Time; good, respectful questions; a commitment to listen with no other agenda but to understand; and careful observation.

Time Spend time with people. Become a regular at a gasoline station, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, garage sales, a walking/running/biking route, community activities, and so on. Engage people in conversation. Do life with them. Allow them to know you.

Questions Ask good questions when appropriate. Discover local traditions, favorite food places, the best places to take your kids or to exercise, the reasons behind unique characteristics of a community (architecture, geography, dialect, dress codes, vocabulary, rhythms of seasonal traditions and events, etc), to name  a few.

Listen well. Hear the stories, but also the heart which motivates the stories. Notices the interplay between personal and family stories and the larger local cultural narrative. How do they relate? Do they differ? Why?

Careful Observation Do their actions line up with their words? What added dimension do their actions bring to their narrative? As an outsider, do you notice things which seem contrary to the proposed internal ethos of the culture? For example, in Portland, I observe that much of its supposed wierdness seems more manufactured by a need to be noticed and marketable as a cultural novelty, than any real underlying fundamental difference from the human experience found in other urban cultures. It is wierd, to be sure. But not to the extent that they would have you believe, and to a greater extent than they realize for reasons they would be loathe to admit. I include myself in this appraisal.

Encouragement. Above all, love your neighbors as yourself. Especially those who hate you and treat you as their enemy. Especially them. Love in the way of Jesus. Have compassion in the way of the Cross. For perhaps in part this is the cross he has entrusted to you, so that he (not you or me) might be lifted up among your neighborhood, and among the nations.


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