Way back when, when there was still snow on the ground, I received a call from Gary Hoffman, the American Legion Post commander in Long Lake, SD, asking me if I would be a guest speaker at their Memorial Day ceremony. I told him I would be honored to do it.
Then, time went by and snow turned to mud turned to green grass and before I knew it Memorial Day was right around the corner. I spent time reflecting and working on the address and making arrangements to cover our parish’s Mass at the cemetery and googled the directions to the Long Lake Legion hall so I would know how to get there when the day arrived.
I have been to Memorial Day ceremonies in several cities and it is always a moving event, and a particular honor to be invited to participate. It means a great deal to me. I am always inspired by the amount of effort and work a city undertakes to have a meaningful ceremony, and each of them are different, and each reflects the particular community that is gathered.
I had invited my father to accompany me to Long Lake for the ceremony, and it was great to have him riding along. We drove the lovely 60 miles from Aberdeen to the heart of McPherson County, the scents of growing grass and kuchen wafting through the open car windows on a cool and cloudy day.
I had never been to Long Lake before, but I knew it was a small town, and it is. There were not many buildings around and not a great deal was on Main Street, but even 30 minutes before the ceremony, there were a number of cars around the Legion Hall on the edge of town.
My dad and I walked in and were greeted with an open and inviting Legion Hall, beautiful wood rafters were overhead and folding chairs faced an old wooden stage covered in Stars and Stripes bunting. The members of the Long Lake Band were warming up and chatting off to the side and the Auxiliary ladies were selling poppy flowers as friends and neighbors began to enter and stand in groups, chatting, before moving to their arranged chairs.
The ceremony itself was everything a person could ask for in such an event. The prayers to begin and end focused our attention, the band consisted of young and old musicians and they were fantastic. There were even poems read by the Boy Staters sponsored by the Legion post. As I sat listening to the special vocal and clarinet music, Pastor Sara Sorensen of the local Lutheran church leaned over and whispered to me, “This town always does such a nice job on Memorial Day.”
I smiled and nodded.
After the ceremony, everyone in attendance walked the short distance to the cemetery for the playing of Taps with two buglers and the traditional volley.
It was perfect.
As we drove back to Aberdeen, my dad and I spoke quite a bit about small towns and how they put their heart and soul into events such as Memorial Day. These events are an opportunity for a community to come together, work together, plan and execute together. Events such as this are a reminder of the life that flows like a current through the heart of a small town.
Of course, larger towns and cities have events such as this as well, and they are planned and organized and attended by many, but the percentage of participation is smaller, and because of this, it does not have the same impact as an event involving most of the town.
As I drove home, I was pondering the singular beauty and life only a small town can bring forth, in the midst of its struggles and eccentricities, it has the ability to grow together, struggle together, remember and celebrate together. It is like the joy I feel when I have a wedding and one of the spouses is from a small town and it feels like the entire city has gathered in our church to celebrate; it is beautiful.
It is perfect.
No matter where we live, we are always looking for a small town in our lives. It may be the sense of community we get from the school our children attend, or the senior center, or the coffee shop in our neighborhood. We are looking for a place where we are known, where that sense of community flourishes.
I live in a larger city, but in so many ways, our parish located in the center of Aberdeen feels a lot like a small town; and it should, because it is, and so is yours. The life and sense of community that can be so easily lost as a city grows is always present in the life found within a parish community.
We should cherish the small town God has given us, this place where we come with our hopes and fears and sorrows and successes; this small town where our children are baptized and confirmed, where they marry, where we are fed with the Bread of Life, where we will be buried. Our small town, our hometown; it is a gift and it finds its strength when all its members take a part, participate and live.
It is your small town, located in the center of the heart of God.