Think about what brings you joy in life. Many of us find joy in our relationships with other people. This shouldn’t be a surprise because we are relational beings meant to live in community with one another, and living out our Christian faith is largely based on how we live with others.
Now think about what it means to be a citizen. We typically think that a good citizen follows laws, votes in elections, and pays taxes – none of which build relationships or immediately bring us joy. It was difficult for most people to find joy in voting in the most recent election, and I have yet to meet someone who finds joy in paying taxes.
Participating in these general citizen activities are vitally important for our society to function, but what does it really mean to be a citizen and how can being a citizen bring us joy?
People who know me know that I’m passionate about being involved in the community and local government. During my time at Dordt College, I started a political activism organization to share that passion with others. I greatly enjoyed being able to share my interest in public affairs with other members of the community, but what brought me the most joy was the relationships I built. It fascinated me how quickly friendships developed when everyone shared a common goal of positively influencing their community. The shared experience of participating in the political process brought people together in a meaningful way.
These relationships are crucial to the health of communities, but they don’t have to be rooted in a passion for politics. Any challenge facing a community, whether in the public sector or not, is an opportunity to build meaningful relationships, and those relationships are what make effective citizens. Even if the problem facing your community isn’t immediately solved, the friendships developed through a common passion can be a source of immense joy.
Having spent time in rural Iowa during college and metropolitan Milwaukee where I live now, I’ve been able to engage in the community in a handful of different ways. Here are a few ideas for how to build relationships around a common cause, impact your community, and be a more effective citizen.
Get to know your elected officials. It’s easier than you think. I’ve personally met every person I’ve ever voted for (and many who I didn’t vote for), and the opportunity is available for anyone to do the same. It’s provided me with a unique perspective on their ideas that influence our laws. It’s valuable to hear directly from them because it allows you to stay above today’s overly sensationalized media and analyze their ideas before you see a headline.
Anybody who’s serious about running for public office will hold events open to the public. The higher the office they’re running for, the more people are likely to attend, so my recommendation is to start as local as possible. Listen to their ideas and provide them with your perspective on an issue. More importantly, get to know them on a personal level. Someone is much more likely to consider feedback from the people they personally know than from the angry emails, tweets, or voicemails they receive from unknown (and sometimes anonymous) constituents on a routine basis.
Keep in mind that few people do this, especially at the local level. Being someone who regularly shows up to provide meaningful feedback is more influential than you think. Plus, there are lots of great people who participate in these kinds of meetings and care about the same issues as you. The common concern for an issue can be the foundation for new friendships.
Participate in community-based organizations. This can include a wide range of groups depending on what your passions are and where you want to make an impact. My interests are promoting the business climate and influencing local politics, so I’ve gotten involved in my county’s business alliance and political organizations. There are so many other groups to get involved with in your community from charity-based to purely social, and you’ll be surprised how often you run into the same people across different groups.
Spend time in the community. Get out there! Citizenship isn’t just about laws and leadership. It’s about being a part of where you live. Dedicate some time to getting out of the house and trying something new. Try a new restaurant, support the local arts, catch a baseball game, be a part of what makes your community special. Getting out, meeting people, and experiencing the area can turn a place you live more into home, and the relationships you build can bring you the most joy.
Citizenship is all about building relationships around the common goal of making the community a better place. The obvious challenge arises, however, when we disagree on how to solve a particular problem. For example, we might agree that something needs to be done to bring down healthcare costs, but how we do that is what brings about disagreement.
Throughout my time in politics, I realized that I disagree with almost everyone to some degree, especially those on my side of the political spectrum. But, having a disagreement doesn’t mean I completely remove myself from the discussion. I’ve found that despite how much my views differ from someone else’s, there is always common ground somewhere. And even a little bit of common ground can be all you need to build the kind of relationship that makes a strong community.
Instead of thinking that the role of a citizen is to vote and pay taxes, think of it as a gateway to building meaningful relationships. The people I meet are the reason I remain involved in the community and local government. Rather than being frustrated with the problems facing society or the people making the decisions, my hope is that confronting them will be a source of joy.