Just before eleven o’clock last night (Saturday, August 4, 2018), a fire was reported at the Tama building in downtown Burlington, Iowa. Dating from the late 1800’s, it sits squarely in the midst of the ‘old’ downtown block. Once, this was the heart of town, with retail shops, restaurants, dress-makers and other small manufacturing concerns, and upper floor apartments. Years and the retail flight out to the shopping centers and malls have taken their toll on downtown Burlington as in so many other cities in the US.
Like many other US cities, Burlington is once again investing in its core. Buildings are being rehabbed. New restaurants, retail, and upscale apartments are opening up. Jefferson Street is beginning to blossom again; life is returning. The Tama building was part of that renaissance, nearing the end of a $12.5 million-dollar renovation. Upper floor apartments were being leased and sold with the expectation they would begin occupancy very soon. At least three commercial tenants were poised to move into the ground floor within the month.
Not now. The building will be a total loss. After fighting the fire all day, the building’s walls are collapsing. The loss of this building will leave a significant mark on the face of downtown Burlington as well as on those business owners who have lost their properties, and the downtown tenants who are displaced.
What stands out for me is how Burlington is responding. One of the first photos from the fire scene I saw showed the owner of a downtown coffee and pastry shop, walking among the resting firefighters with a box of goodies. It looks as if she went out in the middle of the night and emptied her store of goods she was planning to sell on Monday. Countless others have made similar gestures of support. The Rehab area, where responders take a few minutes’ breather, was overflowing with food of all kinds, water and soft drinks. Almost none of this was ordered; people just saw the fire, thought about the needs of the responders and the victims, and made spontaneous gestures of assistance. No profit motive, no pitch for praise, just a humble example of compassion for others, proof of a solid community caring about each other.
According to Bankrate.com, LeBron James was worth $400 Million-dollars in 2017. He has pledged to spend one-fourth of his net worth (25%) to foster a good education for disadvantaged children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. No profit for him, just a quiet gesture of compassion for others less fortunate.
Another way of describing both of these responses is to call it loving neighbor as if they were our own kin. Jesus mentions this as part of the Greatest Commandment.
This is how we are meant to live: not selfishly hoarding everything for ourselves, not measuring every action by only the yardstick of ‘what’s in it for me,’ but by realizing that we are all in this together. We are at our very best when we care for each other; even the ones we do not personally know.
When we conduct our lives with open hands and open hearts, we discover blessings infinitely greater than the accumulation of wealth. We discover the secret of true joy, found in a sharing community.