On the Corner


by Bob Docter –

It seems to me that many of us in this first generation of postmodernism find ourselves in a nostalgic phase—filled with thoughts and feelings of by-gone years when things looked a little different, smelled a little fresher, felt a little warmer, moved a little slower, jobs seemed a little more plentiful and meaningful, and food tasted a little better. It’s a bittersweet melancholia filled with purer, more innocent memories of a time and place to which we cannot return. Those were the days.

It’s almost as if we have experienced a loss with this significant postmodern change thrust upon us as the common culture shifts values, mores, norms, attitudes, beliefs and behavior.

Sometimes in the morning, the young man puts on a tie to go to work and feels just a little different—but better in the process.

Sometimes, people stop at a Christmas kettle with arms full of packages and children and urge one of the children to put a buck in the pot—and when he or she does, they grab a picture and are filled with nostalgic warmth. I suspect that they think to themselves: “This is something I did with dad when I was that age, and now we’re carrying on a great tradition.”

Sometimes, the uniform itself triggers that feeling in those observing, generated by past stories or associations with a group of people who have held firm to traditional values, who make good choices and walk in the way of a caring Christ who helped the desperate. They look upon the uniform and the wearer with respect and admiration.

If this nostalgic period is true for most instead of just me, what can The Salvation Army do to capitalize on our image of being very much a part of “those good ol’ days?” We must be doing some of it or our image as the “old fashioned” outfit that parents and World II Two soldiers told their children about would not be so prevalent—maybe not so much as a reality, but certainly held firm as an image.

America is experiencing another burst of immigration. The holidays with their sights, smells and tastes become a particular challenge for immigrants. Along with facing cultural differences, stereotyping and ethnocentrism, they work to provide for their children the promises of America. They also find themselves immersed in a dramatic cultural shift among the population. We need to be sensitive to this and “be there” with them.

There are some things we’ve abandoned that formerly presented us very favorably to the general public. They contributed to the memory base of the population and triggered that nostalgic mood of many. What are they? Why did we give them up?

One of them is the open air street meeting.

I’ve been to many and led almost as much. I think we ought to revisit this nostalgic memory maker. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it does much for the listeners unless certain conditions are present—certain criteria are met. First, you have go where there is a crowd. We know that in relation to picking kettle spots. You don’t put one on a dark street with zero foot traffic. You pick a time when the people will be there. The crowd might be there on days or nights your corps is not used to being involved. This will require motivation of the membership and getting a new time slot committed.
Second, our goal on being there in that park or on that corner is not just to stimulate nostalgia. It’s to send a message that listeners might be interested in—a special event, a dinner, a subject for discussion that might help them deal with problems both spiritual and temporal. The communication of a message requires a relationship with the listener. A relationship demands mutual interest. Don’t yell at them—don’t blast them out. Don’t judge them—have something to say they will want to hear—relate!

Third, bring people with you who do more than just stand around. It takes a crowd to get a crowd. Don’t go unless you can appear significant. Look happy but not crazy. Wear a uniform and make sure they know you’re from The Salvation Army. Use varying age groups, and make sure they have something to offer.

Fourth, be able to attract attention. A brass band is a big help—even a beginners’ ensemble—a lot of guitars might do it as well. Don’t ask for money. You can put the drum down in the middle of the ring and they will enjoy throwing money on it—but don’t ask for it. Announce, instead, that if someone needs help we’re willing to try.

Fifth, accept the notion that it’s not just a one shot deal. It needs to be a regular event.

If you can meet most of these and the ones you add yourself—give it a try.

They say: “You can’t go home again,” and the definition of nostalgia validates that point. It comes from the Greek word nostus “to return home,” and the word algia, “pain.” Many think of home—as it was and, in an effort to find it again, work to create it once more. They raise their kids the way they were raised—some good, some not so good. They only remember the best things about school and try to reprise them in the school their children attend.

I lived in those by-gone years. I’ll admit that “things” looked different from what “things” look like now (but not necessarily better), that the air definitely smelled fresher (true), and I felt tremendous warmth and security from my parents and my twin brother. I can no longer experience it except in my heart and mind—but now, I know how to give it away.

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