Service Clubs Boost Democratic Skills, Values

Service Clubs Boost Democratic Skills, Values
Members of the Shriners entertain the crowd as they participate in the annual Canada Day parade in Montreal. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
Brad Bird

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.

Only 20 years ago there were Elks, Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, and other clubs in almost every town and city in North America, and many do remain but the numbers are down. According to an internet article "Are Service Clubs Dying?" Rotary membership has fallen off since 1995, and Elks membership is only half of what it was in 1980. Shriners numbers have been halved since 1990, and the Masons have lost three million members since their glory days in the 1950s.
The clubs do an incredible amount of charity and community work, from putting on parades to funding local hospitals and helping sick or needy children. They build great bonds of trust among their members. They also build better and healthier communities.
Sociologists say the clubs create “social capital”—friendship, trust, social skills, and knowledge such as Robert’s Rules of Order (by running regular meetings), which prepare people for elected positions and therefore strengthen democracy. Economic activity also flourishes as members hire members for various jobs or patronize shops owned by members—one of the reasons joining at least one club was or is a “must do” for businesspeople in any town or city.
Sadly, because membership has fallen off in the past three decades, many branches have closed their doors. This is a great loss, for the clubs and lodges, independent of government, enhanced wellness and built a stronger civil society. It’s sad to see institutions that once meant so much to so many decline and even close because of declining membership, which means declining interest.

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.

Brad Bird is an award-winning reporter and editorial writer based in British Columbia.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Brad Bird began his career by freelancing in the 1970s. He worked for the Winnipeg Free Press in the 1980s and various smaller papers since, as well as abroad in conflict zones and for a Conservative MP in the Harper government. Also an author, he divides his time between Manitoba and B.C.