The Week Baton Rouge Became a Community

Growing up and living as I have my entire life in the inner city of Baton Rouge, I remember a time when Baton Rouge was a real community, not just a random collection of people seemingly without much in common.  It was a place where neighbors knew one another and were involved in each other’s lives.

My parents never locked our doors when we were away, because our neighbors might need to get in to borrow something! Parents were involved in the neighborhood schools, and store owners knew the names of their customers.  Kids rode the bus downtown by themselves, and any grown up on the street would take charge of a child who was unruly or disrespectful.

But things changed. With cross-town busing and the breakdown of neighborhood schools, the school was no longer the center of life in the neighborhood.  People didn’t really know one another anymore.

Crime rose, and people became more cautious and distrustful of one another.

For the past generation, life in the Mid-City area of Baton Rouge has been pleasant. The area is racially diverse, and there have been few real problems between the races. Yet, there has been little warmth.

A state of apathy set in. It hasn’t been a hostile environment but just cool. No one talks a lot. When you are out and about, if you see friends and acquaintances, you chat them up.  But with strangers, no.  Just “Hello” or “May I help you?” or “Thank you.”  Not much else.  Nothing that says, “I care!”

It was as if people didn’t really see you, especially if you were of a different race!

But that all changed — rather dramatically — last week! Today, the inner city of Baton Rouge has a remarkably different tone about it.  Once the shooting of Alton Sterling occurred and the protests began, something snapped!

Out in the public, everywhere you go, people are now genuinely friendly, especially people of other races!  They say hello.  They ask if you are okay.  They open doors.  They shake hands. They smile! And they express genuine concern for one another.  People are hugging strangers and praying for one another.

Likewise, policemen who are supposedly so hated are being thanked and hugged and prayed over by strangers of another race.

It’s as though everything our mamas taught us and everything we learned in Sunday School suddenly kicked in!

“Love your neighbor as yourself!”

“Don’t judge people by their appearance!”

“Be good to other people. It will all come back to you!”

There is no question that the influence of our churches in Baton Rouge is great, but their influence has been great within their own congregations.  But now it’s as though all they’ve worked for all these years is spilling over into the community in a very big way.

Suddenly, the people of Baton Rouge are aware of one another.  We’re looking at each other and seeing a real person — not an object but a person with feelings. And we are saying to each other in subtle ways “I’m glad you are here and glad we are in this together!”

I believe 50 years from now, people in Baton Rouge will still be talking about these days.

They will remember the time when Baton Rouge could have exploded but didn’t because there were too many good people here to allow that to happen.

Most of all, I think they will remember this as the time when Baton Rouge became more than just a random collection of people but a real community where people really care about one another and our future together.

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