With all the concern about election propriety or impropriety in the United States, it’s timely to remember that democracy doesn’t just happen. It takes skills and practices rooted in tradition—which comes from where? Civil society, those clubs and groups like churches and choirs that enhance our way of life.
There was a time in Canada and the United States when membership in a service club or lodge was almost a rite of passage into the heart of a community. Membership in the Elks, Freemasons, Shriners, Kiwanis, Lions, Optimists, or Rotary was something special.
Millions enjoyed and treasured the fraternity and chance to help others and be part of something bigger than themselves. Many still serve in such organizations today. Rotary International’s motto captures their common ethic: “Service above self.”
The United States was the spawning ground for most of the service clubs and fraternal organizations in North America. The Elks were founded in 1868 in New York City; Rotary in 1905 in Chicago; Kiwanis in 1915 in Detroit. London, England, in 1717 gave rise to the Freemasons, originally members of stonemason guilds and cathedral builders. Some of these groups spread worldwide; Rotary International has about 1.2 million members in 158 countries.
Declining interest in what? In getting together to mix, meet, and help others. During the golden years for service clubs from about 1920 to 1970, most members built their lives around family, work, club, and church. That was the basis of our communities, the rock that supported our freedoms, spiritual life, material needs, and desire to help others.
Is it a coincidence that today we have heightened concerns about electoral practices and other ethical breaches at a time when membership in values-based service clubs and churches has sharply declined?
I don’t think so.
Thirty years ago, I belonged to Elks Lodge #135 in The Pas, Manitoba. Harold Berg was our Exalted Ruler and Cliff Nichols was secretary (year after year; no one did it better). Brian Bristow and Jack Walker were other key executive members. When our major fundraiser, the Monday night bingo, in our Elks Hall needed workers, Harold put out the word and always got a good response from the 50 or more active members.
I remember those years of Elks membership with great fondness and joy, and it has to do with the power of belonging. I just chatted by phone with Bristow, one of the last leaders of Lodge #135, who told me a new bingo hall built with taxpayers’ money put their private hall out of business years ago. The Elks Hall had to be sold and the lodge soon disbanded.
Those days before the internet were another world—it’s maybe too easy to say a better world. We connected by phone or by getting together. We researched using books, newspapers, or microfilms in libraries, or we talked to people. We joined service clubs for connections and camaraderie and made great memories.
If I have one suggestion for young people wanting to create a happier life for themselves and a better community for others, it would be to do what my boss at the time, Murray Harvey, advised 31 years ago: join a service club or fraternal lodge and get involved. Be active. You’ll be glad you did.
And you’ll be helping to maintain, even improve, your democracy.