Individualism, Community & Junk Mail

Once again, in early December, I found myself in the nearby Charlesland estate, on my annual delivery of invitations to our Carol Service. Once again I was faced with a decision. Of the 1600 or so houses in the estate, around a third of them have that common-to-Greystones sign on the door:

NO JUNK MAIL 9076 Rigid PVC Sign Plaque Notice

Do I put in an invitation? I certainly didn’t regard it as junk – but did they? In the end, I decided on a case-by-case basis. A small, faded label, I conveniently ignored. An A4 poster that said “ABSOLUTELY NO…. “ followed by a list of a dozen categories covering everything from free newspapers to Chinese takeaway offers, I respectfully obeyed. Especially if it concluded with “AND we have a large dog!”

The number of such signs has noticeably increased over the years I’ve been doing this. It is frustrating when you know that what is in your hand is not junk, but an invitation to a free community event; an attempt to provide something for a locality of people who often complain on messageboards and public fora that they feel left out of Greystones life; an event which in previous years has been well-received by those who have attended.

But I can’t complain, because we actually have a similar notice on our door. Annoyed by the mountain of pizza ads landing on our floor weekly, Gwen’s environmental conscience took over and we posted the sign a couple of years ago. We did make the exception and ask them specifically to keep delivering the free Wicklow newspaper. However, since most deliverers have little or no grasp of English, they simply see the sign, acting like a modern-day “blood on the doorpost” and pass us by; meaning we now feel cut off from a lot of community news, events and worthwhile offers.

As a result, I am aware that “NO Junk Mail” could actually mean different things to different people. One family in our church, who were actually involved in the distribution, were also among those with the large A4 sign (but without the dog), simply because they were constantly interrupted by inconsiderate cold callers offering all sorts of unwanted products just as they were getting three toddlers off to sleep. I have no doubt that some of those with the sign would have loved to have received our invitation but, like ourselves, took the risk of missing out on the worthwhile as well as the junk.

But I started also to have a more sympathetic view towards what we might dismiss too easily as junk, and a more critical view of what I and many in Charlesland were communicating through our sign.

Because, I have found that the literature tends to fall into three categories:
i) community news (in the form of the weekly rag, Council updates or news from charity and voluntary groups);
ii) small businesses, food outlets etc, advertising their offers;
iii) or self-employed folks struggling to make a living – gardeners, window cleaners, ironers, patio layers.

In the worst recession for decades these were people taking initiative to use their gifts to serve and to provide for themselves and their family; or businesses trying to keep their heads above water; or groups that existed in a voluntary or non-voluntary capacity to enhance a sense of community, and to strike a blow against individualism – the sort of individualism that motivates people to retreat into their houses and stick a DO NOT DISTURB sign on their door.

I put myself in their shoes. What if I was unemployed and distributing a card that said “Free to work hard for long hours for you to fix, dig, cook, clean. Just letting you know” and house after house basically told me “Stay Away!”? What if I was struggling to make a restaurant work and I knew that folks from the area enjoyed my chef’s creations, but when I went to tell them of a new early-bird, I was rebuffed by a sheet of A4 implying what I could do with my spaghetti carbonara?

Dissuade inconsiderate cold callers, yes; recycle for the environment, yes; but maybe a genuine desire to be open to and informed about the community in which we live is worth a temporary invasion of literature onto our hall floor? I’ll let you know when we return in May, whether our front door has changed!

The irony is that Charlesland is built for community. In contrast to the Old Greystones of The Burnaby or Church Road – detached houses, long driveways, high hedges and electronic gates, Charlesland is built round an open green with a Crescent at the top. Some houses have shared entrances. The upper level houses have balconies looking out on the green – ideal for neighbourhood barbecues. There is a playground and sports pitches, creches abound.

Yet the community centre is criminally underused and the Coffee Shop had to close (unheard of in Greystones where, I’ve been told, there are 17 places to have your cappuccino). Friends who live in the estate testify that it is actually one of the hardest places to get to know your neighbours. It’s the sort of place where a bit of festive singing, mince pies and mulled wine was needed; the sort of place where the message of incarnation, hope, salvation and communities renewed by the grace of God would be all the more relevant. The message is relevant too, of course, to the high hedges of Old Greystones, but I’ve always known that. Something about camels and eyes of needles drove that home to me a long time ago.

Perhaps I thought Charlesland with its superficial community look was different. But maybe they just were smarter. Saved themselves the inordinate cost of a coded gate, security system, multi-acre garden and a detached pad worth a million-euro plus, and discovered that their innate individualism could be expressed much more effectively and inexpensively. As cheap and easy as a four-by-two label saying NO JUNK MAIL.

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7 comments

  1. Great insight, brother! We humans enjoy our privacy and individualism these days – especially in the West. Community tends to be a thing of the past. May God bless your efforts and the efforts of the believers there in Greystones to build a kingdom community centered on the love of Christ.

  2. We have had the same dilemma when inviting people to our church events. When I see the sign “No Junk Mail” my initial response is “This isn’t junk’ {especially if we are delivering John/Romans to them, so I post it anyways. If I didn’t, it could result in a lost soul, but wouldn’t it be worth it if it DID result in a new member of the Family

    1. I know, Colin, but there are sometimes other factors at play too. For instance, if we are trying to build up good relationships in the community and with those who run the Centre, I don’t want to risk that by being known as “The guys who don’t respect our notices and put unwanted material through our doors”- so you have to rely on your own judgement at times. The best thing is to go for human contact wherever possible, so if I see someone in the house, I’ll wave and get to speak to them- When that happens, they always do accept, regardless of whether they have a sign up or not

  3. Great piece, Monty. Looking forward to welcoming you (and Gwen) back to Regent College as our Chaplain in Residence this winter-spring 🙂

  4. Brian Egan · · Reply

    Great article. Having distributed the same notices about our Carol Service throughout Charlesland, I have encountered the same “No Junk Mail” signs. My reaction is, as yours, this is not junk! A number of years ago I posted a notice through door so marked and before I reached the next house a man came out to ask me if I had seen his sign. I mentioned that it wasn’t junk but an invitation and his attitude changed. He even mentioned that he might go to it – not sure he did go but the face to face contact definitely was more effective.
    Brian

  5. John Faris Presbyterian minister in Cork · · Reply

    We have a different but related problem in leafleting the bedsits in the old houses in the area around Trinity Cork: one doorway, six or even twelve postboxes – sometimes we seek to knock doors in order to make a contact before leaving the leaflet but how do you deal with a multiplicity of doorbells on one door post?

    The long term solution is incarnation – who from our church will go and live in some of those apartments and get to know people as they walk to buy a paper? But the minister of Trinity Cork lives in a leafy suburb 5 miles away …

    I hate to say it, but if the ‘rich’ shut themselves away behind their security measures and their excluding noitces maybe we have to leave them till they come to their senses and spend our time elsewhere? Isn’t there a pattern in Acts of Paul turning from his closed own people to go to the Gentiles? I have a friend who tries to engage the fortune tellers and other practioners at ‘Mind Body Spirit’ festivals, which is so far as I can see barren work and possibly provocative, and counter productive. My counsel is to engage with the clients, looking for healing and direction and assurance, who are much more spiritually open. Am I right? I do honour those who stay faithful in unfruitful locations – I know a bit about that myself, but I increasingly don’t see the point of spending a morning arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness.

  6. You are spot on, John. We can only get into them if we have someone living in the block who will then put the leaflets into the 50 or so boxes. But we are happy that at least we have “a presence” there. With the other blocks, we just leave it. I think there is great wisdom in your other comments. A phrase I have picked up in some of the literature is “Look for the low-hanging fruit”, if we are able to make an impact there, that in itself would be significant. The theological term might be to look for those ‘in whom the Holy Spirit is already at work”

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