Community members will gather on the Chief John Ross Memorial Bridge next Sunday for the One Table event, sharing a meal and dialogue, as those connected with the organizing group One Community United have been doing for the last four years.
In between their two large events — Hearts United Gathering and One Table — dozens of One Community United members meet at local restaurants for their small group meetings, seeing old or new friends, talking local matters or just spending time with those outside their everyday lives.
During one of these small group meetings recently, at Troy’s Bar-B-Que, eight regulars shared their thoughts about One Community United and what it brings to their personal lives as well as their community.
After moving to Rome from California earlier this year, Demetria Fears wanted to find a way to connect with her new community. But not growing up in Rome, and not being from the South, she didn’t quite know how to find her place here.
Then, one day, her neighbor came to her door and invited her and her husband to a meeting. Her neighbor is Ken Fuller, one of the group’s founders. And since attending their first meeting at his house, Fears has returned again and again.
“I was surprised that a white man came to my door and invited us,” she said.
For Fears, the message of the group — for people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for meaningful connection and dialogue — resonated with her. But the group also represented a pathway for her to feel more at home in a new town, she said, while also providing local knowledge for her to find part-time work — she is semi-retired — at Action Ministries.
In thinking about why he joined the group, Jimmy Byars said, “It sort of seemed like the right thing to do,” following his friend Rick Stevenson’s invitation.
“It brings people together who would not normally want to be together,” he continued. “It’s hard to think bad about someone where you’re sitting down to breakfast with them.”
Though he’s lived in Rome for nearly all his life, participating in the group has given him the opportunity to interact with his fellow community members in a way he hadn’t before.
“And that’s been a blessing,” he said.
After moving back to Rome with her husband, Taylor Ritchie knew she wanted to get more involved in her changing hometown. She wanted to take part in the important conversations concerning her city’s future, she said.
Ritchie followed her father’s tip about the group and attended her first meeting at Troy’s, as one of the youngest members. The meeting opened her up to the perspectives and thoughts of an older generation, shedding light on Rome’s past.
“There’s a lot of history in these groups,” she said.
It’s easy to become absorbed in a “one-lane life,” Will Byington said, drawn into the on-the-go pressure of work and taking kids to practices and games. So One Community United meetings for him became a time to talk and enjoy the company of those outside his work and home life.
“It’s a great place,” he said, where open conversation can take place between those who don’t normally cross paths in their regular lives.
“This is not what most churches look like on a Sunday morning,” said Danny Eason, referring to the group at Troy’s.
As the missions chairman for Westminster Presbyterian Church, Eason is responsible for reaching out to the community. But this group breaks away from church affiliation, and help improve community relations in ways individual churches can’t, he said.
Religion, like race, should not be a point of division, Eason said.
“You can be a decent person with someone and not think the way they do,” he said.
One thing that has struck Monica Sheppard since she joined One Community United was its practice of believing in the difference small actions make, rather than relying on grand gestures aimed at growing a public profile, she said. At the core of it is building relationships, she continued.
When people can no longer just sit down and chat openly, “you lose the opportunity to have revelations,” to be fulfilled and enriched through conversation, Sheppard said. It’s the wonder of revelations which drive changes in belief and opinions, a power to unseat prior conclusions, she continued.
One Community United is about locals coming together to say, in the face of problems in this country and across the world, “that’s not us,” Robert Owens said.
“We share love,” he continued.
And this love is reciprocated with each new member who joins the group, creating an environment where they feel comfortable to share about themselves, Owens said. As a member of the Baptist Convention, he said it’s natural for him to try and make his new brothers and sisters in Christ feel comfortable.
But in reaching out it’s not to push his religion or politics rather it’s to talk about life, something we all share.
Lila Moore is another person who joined the group after returning to her hometown. And since attending her first meeting last year, she tries to make it back for one each month.
“It’s always uplifting to me,” she said.
The simplicity of it, just sitting down next to another person without expectations or judgment, allows the conversation to roll where it pleases, Moore said.
Efforts such as those of One Community United are buffers to the divisiveness other communities have experienced, she said.