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Michael O’Loughlin: Government, the church and Micah’s call

As a brutal campaign season comes to an end, it’s important to recommit ourselves to do justice and to love kindness -- and perhaps to remember the good that government can do.

November 6, 2012

Like millions of Americans, I’ll be glued to the television and tied to my laptop tonight awaiting results from the election. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the years of stump speeches given and the ads -- oh, the ads. If you live in a swing state, you know what I mean.

Every commercial break for the past few months has been filled with Mitt Romney attacking Barack Obama, Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney, Senate candidates yelling back and forth at one another, and average voters explaining why they’re bucking their party this year.

But thankfully, now it’s all done, and tomorrow morning, the first Wednesday in November, we’ll know who will lead our government come January.

The beginning of November is always an exciting time for political junkies like me. But the first Monday in May is when I recall most vividly the politics that shaped my youth, because it’s the day my town held its elections.

I’ve been campaigning since I was 5 years old. That’s when my father won his first election to the Board of Selectmen, similar to a town council, in the small town where I grew up in northeastern Massachusetts. He held the position for 18 years, and every three years, when re-election rolled around, I would join the campaign.

Those early contests blur together now, but I remember holding signs on street corners, waving to cars as they passed by, hoping a few would honk along their way.

As I got a bit older, I was able to be more involved with the campaigns. I’d help my dad and his friends hammer political signs into supporters’ yards. I’d tag along to debates, held in the cafeterias of local elementary schools. I’d help craft newspaper ads and would even wake up early to listen to radio interviews on the local morning show.

Where I grew up, local politics was a very serious affair. Until I left for college, I never realized that my hometown was not a very wealthy place, at least in terms of money, but it was clearly rich in civic engagement, hometown pride and a true sense of community. There wasn’t a local spaghetti supper in some church hall or a chicken barbecue at the American Legion that we didn’t attend.

I would sometimes attend selectmen meetings, and I knew many of the staff at town hall. I listened intently at dinner as my parents discussed the goings-on about town. I often listened to my father’s end of the long phone conversations he had with constituents and other town leaders.

When I entered high school, I became involved in student government, and because the overlap seemed natural, I pushed our student council to participate in wider community life. We volunteered to help at the summer concerts on the town green, raised money for school activities and donated all our leftover funds to the town library.

It was also around this time that I immersed myself in my Catholic faith, taking on leadership roles at the parish. I taught religious education, distributed the Eucharist, read Scripture during Mass and even mowed the lawns and cleaned the windows in the summers.

Local government and parish life -- these were the experiences that shaped me growing up and continue to form my views today.

I often tell people that the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” resonates with me, because it offers a surprisingly accurate vision of local government at its best: well-meaning, perhaps quirky but often capable individuals who put in time and energy to make their town a good place to raise a family, attend school and enjoy time with friends and neighbors.

Being from Massachusetts, I have no shortage of home-state political icons to revere and idolize. Among them are members of the Kennedy family, whose commitment to public service and devotion to our shared Catholic faith helped shape my political beliefs.

More recently, Deval Patrick’s fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention got me excited about 2016. But it was my experiences much closer to home -- campaigning with my dad, watching him live out an implicit gospel mandate in his public work -- that left the strongest mark upon me.

Several years ago, as the economy started to falter, civic and religious leaders back home realized that a growing number of families in town needed some kind of food assistance. Residents were having to travel to other cities and towns for help.

My father -- by this time the town’s “elder statesman,” as I half-jokingly pointed out to him -- led a committee of representatives from local Catholic and Protestant churches, civic groups and town agencies. They mounted a lengthy fundraising drive, found donated space and started the town’s only food pantry. The day it opened, only a handful of families dropped by. Now it serves hundreds each month.

I had moved away by the time the pantry was fully functional, but I was lucky enough to be home one weekend when it was open and was drafted to volunteer on the early-morning shift. I carried groceries to cars, gave out eggs and milk and saw firsthand good works in action at the most local level.

There is much conversation these days about the appropriate size, scope and mission of government at every level. Our communities and our nation face many daunting challenges that we must meet with fewer resources than before.

Although well-meaning individuals disagree about how to serve society’s neediest, my experiences back home remind me that, at its best, government can make a positive impact on human lives. And it is our faith, really, that calls us to do just that. Sometimes we’re able to serve through our churches, but sometimes we need government to provide as well.

As Christians, we’re called to usher in the kingdom of God here on earth. This radical charge demands radical transformation of how we live. Sometimes the church can do this, and other times it will take organizations, structures, policies and laws. Sometimes, that is, it will take government.

The eighth verse of the sixth chapter of the book of Micah inspires:

And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Being motivated by faith to serve and act through government is one way to live out this call. As we move on from another brutal campaign season, it’s important to recommit ourselves to do justice and to love kindness, and perhaps to recall the good that government can do. After all, serving the poor is our gospel mandate.

The two institutions that shaped my youth -- government and the church -- have fallen far since then. Both now seem tattered and frayed, held in disregard if not contempt by so many people. But I have seen and known from the time I was 5 that both are needed if we are to answer Micah’s call.

Both are part of the solution.