Skip to main content

Commentary: Fargo's faith cannot be destroyed

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: People of Fargo are defining what the word "community" means
  • They have been working in the cold to shore up the levees
  • Greene: Increasingly, communities are being defined as virtual ones online
  • Fargo's experience shows there is still value in being a local community
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says the people of Fargo are defining the essence of the word "community."

Bob Greene says the people of Fargo are defining the essence of the word "community."

(CNN) -- In Fargo, North Dakota, in recent days, the word "destruction" has been much spoken. The reference has been to the potential power of the feared floodwaters.

By Sunday morning, as sandbagging efforts were scheduled to resume, there was at least some hope that the battle against the Red River was winnable. But even if, in the end, it should turn out that the outcome is as dire as the starkest of predictions -- even if the river overflows its banks to an extent and for a duration never before seen in Fargo -- the things that truly matter in town will not be destroyed.

Proof of that is evident. Once in a great while, a community has the opportunity to understand anew what that word -- "community" -- really means; once in a while, a town defines itself as a town. The week just past has been such a time for Fargo.

The people of the city, joined by volunteers from other cities in North Dakota, Minnesota and beyond, have done what they can do to shore up the levees and barricades, to put up whatever defense they can muster against the river. Neighbor standing next to neighbor, they have worked with those sandbags in the daylight and at night, in the cold and in the snow.

Our society has grown accustomed to assuming we can accomplish just about anything with the touch of a button, the movement of a cursor on a computer screen. That too-easy word -- "community" -- has become overused in its online context. All the so-called communities on the glowing screens, all the friends and friendships to be bestowed with the click of a mouse.

And then comes a moment when the essence of community, in its bedrock definition, is required, and we witness it as it unfolds, person by person, minute by minute.

They don't know in Fargo whether, in the end, they will have vanquished the river.

If you've ever been to that part of the upper Midwest, you are aware that self-sufficiency is one of the defining qualities of the lives the people lead. They have grown up knowing it has to be that way.

Most Americans seldom pass through North Dakota. The families who live there have long understood that when something important needs to be done, they'd better count on doing it themselves. There is a pride in that that, although not often expressed aloud, is part of the air itself.

Take the Roger Maris Museum, for one particularly lovely example. Maris grew up in Fargo; as a boy, he played American Legion baseball in town, and he went on to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season. He was somehow denied a measure of proper respect by much of the world, and the residents of his old hometown felt that one of the ways he was deprived of the wider world's regard was that he was never voted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Fargo didn't like how Maris was treated, but Fargo didn't complain. It took care of the matter itself. The town's American Legion Post No. 2 built the Roger Maris Museum where everyone could see it: in the West Acres Shopping Center, at the Sears end of the mall. It's not very grandiose, but it's there. It's free to all who choose to come, and its message is: We look after our own.

As the waters rose in the Red River during these dwindling days of March, the Roger Maris Museum, and the West Acres Shopping Center itself, were closed down at the end of the week so the mall's employees, along with everyone else in town, can prepare for what is to come.

The mayor, Dennis Walaker, speaking of the battle against the river, said, "we want to win this. We want to win this badly." Yet he was realistic. He told the people of Fargo, "I don't care how old you are. You've never seen anything like this in the Valley."

The instructions given to the residents by the city's elected leaders have, perhaps inadvertently, reflected both a faith in the localness that has always been the foundation of Fargo, yet also a need for faith in something more powerful, something about as far from local as can be.

It could be heard in the words of Tim Mahoney, a Fargo city commissioner. He asked volunteers to go to one of two places to help fill sandbags: to the Fargodome sports stadium or to the Assembly of God church.

In the 3½ years since the terrible hurricane hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there has been a phrase that has entered the language: a "Katrina moment." The way it usually is spoken is not meant to flatter; a Katrina moment, as a rule, refers to a failure by government to provide the necessary assistance at a moment of crisis.

But there are moments, and there are moments. Whatever Fargo may become in the months and years ahead, what has already taken place there as the river has risen will serve to define the spirit of the town for generations yet unborn.

We are told so often that the world has become borderless, that in a digital age, we're all citizens of a universe without geographic definition. On those computer keyboards of ours, or so we are asked to believe, we're all everywhere at once.

It's not true. Everyone is from somewhere solid and real, from a spot on a map; everyone was born into a community in the oldest sense of that word. In the community of Fargo this past week, as the residents have worked shoulder to shoulder to fight the river, they have learned the meaning of that all over again. But of course, being from Fargo, they never really forgot.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

All About FargoFloodsHurricane Katrina

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print