With Christmas approaching, Pastor Luke Fillmore of the United Methodist Church in Hamburg, Iowa — a small town in the state’s southwest corner that was already reeling from disastrous floods, even before the coronavirus pandemic and the contentious 2020 election — told me he’s been thinking a lot about how to facilitate the desire among his congregants and within his community to move forward in the new year.
“How do you talk with someone about abortion, about gun legislation? Heck, it got to the level where we couldn’t even talk about masks,” Fillmore said in early December, the time of Advent — traditionally a period in Christian denominations associated with waiting and preparation.
I met Fillmore a year and a half ago, when I began traveling to key electoral states — Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan — to document the concerns shaping everyday lives. I expected to find vastly different challenges in each place: climate change, racial inequality, deindustrialization. When I first set out, the economy was strong, the first US cases of Covid-19 were still months away, the Democratic presidential nominee not yet named. By the time I visited the last community on my list, the country was experiencing a renewed surge of the virus and the aftermath of record unemployment, while demonstrations against anti-Black police violence had opened up new conversations around racism — and Joe Biden was on his way to winning the presidency.
Now, as the country emerges from the most polarizing election in memory, it’s facing a deepening public health crisis and a recession that’s been made worse by political paralysis in Washington. Yet those catastrophes have revealed a ground truth: Even as our democracy faces unprecedented tests, individuals are still willing to work together to fix local problems.
In Hamburg as well as in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Bay City, Michigan, I met people coping with overwhelming forces of change. And yet, in all the communities I visited, I heard the repeated desire to work together across differences for the common good — and found dedicated activists who were stepping up to address the problems their communities faced, filling a vacuum left by the retreat of old institutions. Their grassroots acts of mutual aid were having a real impact, but also, paradoxically, highlighted the extent to which their communities had been left to manage on their own.
What emerged in all of them was an intense focus on figuring out how to bridge differences in order to fix common problems.
“Being able to speak those words that need to be spoken hinge upon a couple of things: You’ve got to love people. If you can’t do that, what you’re going to say is for your own benefit and not for anyone else,” Fillmore told me. “You’ve got to respect them enough to listen, to engage, to entertain and admit to nuance. If I can’t do that, then they won’t be able to do that either. If we’re comfortable entering into the uncertainty, into the nuances, I think a lot of the walls can come down.”
Back-to-back disasters in Iowa
My first trip to Hamburg was in the fall of 2019, when the town was trying to rebuild after a devastating flood that destroyed more than 70 homes and inundated businesses on its main street. Before the flood, Hamburg had managed to resist the forces of small-town decline, but the devastation made many residents question whether it could ever recover. Then, just as they were beginning to emerge from the trauma of one natural disaster and dream again about the future, Covid-19 hit.
Living through back-to-back disasters has tested everyone. “With the flood, we were still able to gather and support each other,” said Fillmore, who spent months streaming virtual services over the internet. “Those real, spiritual practices of fellowship that helped us through that time have been impossible now. There has been a tangible sense of loss. The flood gave us a visual symbol for the community to rally around. The pandemic has been far more ephemeral.”
The enforced isolation of the pandemic had disrupted some of the momentum in Hamburg that had allowed for a community of people across all faiths and beliefs to unite over shared concerns, but he held out hope that people would once again come together in its wake. “There’s that hero stage and then there’s the disillusionment. And then after people kind of, you know, shake the dust off their feet a little bit, they say, OK, now, now it’s time to get work done. And so this, too, will pass. The pandemic will pass, the contentious election atmosphere will pass, or at least there will be a time where we can take a step out of it.”
Yet, despite the added layer of uncertainty that the pandemic has brought, Hamburg is recovering. Scarred earth still marks the place where flood-damaged homes once stood, but across from the town’s school, students, along with a team of volunteer builders, have begun to raise the frame for a house they are building for a mother of three school-age children. Word is that buyouts for the more than 60 families who lost their homes and qualified for federal aid will be coming in the new year. The new year is also when construction on a new levee to protect the town from another flood is set to start.
Despite the recession caused by the pandemic, a coffee shop has opened on Main Street. Not far from there, an investor plans to open a hotel. A Dollar General is due to open any day — big news for a town that has been for years without a grocery store. “People drive by every day to see how much progress has been made,” says Cathy Crain, the town’s volunteer mayor. “They are so tickled it’s coming. I’ve joked that we could stop right now, and people would be thrilled.”
It feels like a turning point for a town that Crain said has known 50 years of losses, starting with the grain embargo of the Jimmy Carter era. That marked the end of smaller family farms and the rise of agribusiness; that then further accelerated a loss of residents that had begun in the 1950s, and Hamburg saw its population fall by half. But now, Crain said, city planners hired with federal grant money earmarked for economic development have begun meeting with residents to craft a master plan for the town’s long-term future.
“For us, we’re not looking at the wider world, we’re looking right inside us, and here’s why: We’ve known for years, as we watched this decline, the only reason we’re here is because we were still fighting — no one was fighting for us,” she said. “No one was fighting for us before the disaster, we were doing it on our own. We don’t care what your label is, what your party is, if you are going to help us. You’re just talking to a town that’s been starved for a long time. We can hardly believe it when somebody’s going to help us and we certainly don’t trust it.”
A fresh start in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt
When I first met Jose Rivera in February, before the pandemic, he was working on a plan to rebuild his life after spending time in prison for drug distribution, with a vision of also helping to rebuild the city that he felt he had harmed with his previous actions. Rivera had formed an unlikely relationship with a local developer, J.B. Reilly, president of City Center Investment Corp., who has been central to downtown Allentown’s revitalization.
Reilly sought the counsel of Rivera and other gang members about how his redevelopment plans could include and raise up the city’s communities of color — those whose neighborhoods stood to be most harmed by the forces of gentrification. The fruit of those meetings was The Real Estate Lab, which provides mentorship and financial connections to help residents buy and rehab distressed apartment properties so that they could become property owners and reap the rewards of local redevelopment, too.
Despite the pandemic, Rivera graduated in May with his associate’s degree in business management and was accepted into the Lab’s second class. He recently received the keys to his first property to manage — a rental home purchased by the Lab — and, if he completes an agreed-upon list of renovations, the title will ultimately be transferred to his name.
Reilly, who gifted Rivera a laptop to get him through his last months of school, reaches out to him every other week, Rivera told me. “He’s told me he wants me to focus and by next year, he’ll be pushing for me to have three properties,” said Rivera, who’s also won a scholarship to study business at Muhlenberg College. “He said that he knows it will be more difficult with my background, but thinks that’s a good pace. He’s said he’ll give me the opportunity to bump my head, but he won’t let me fall off the cliff.”
Remembering that Rivera is also a keen follower of politics, I asked him what he thought about the election. “I was a poll worker, so I had to be apolitical in the lead-up,” he said. But he attended rallies on all sides, including one where he saw Kamala Harris, who he described as “amazing.”
Yet he said Biden’s victory “was not a Democratic success, it was a Republican failure.” He believes most people are not moved by party so much as by those who “are all about the Valley” — meaning the Lehigh Valley, of which Allentown is a part, but also the working-class slice of the community Rivera is committed to raising up.
And he had a warning for Democrats going forward.
“You have to keep us excited. If you want our power in two years, you have to keep coming around and speaking directly with people from the community,” he said. “You need to keeping coming and opening yourself up to us. Otherwise, we see how we helped you, but for us, you have nothing?”
Answering hunger in hard-hit Michigan
In Bay City, I witnessed the emotional and financial toll of the pandemic and the way that community members were doing whatever they could to prevent their neighbors’ suffering. By day, Shannon Benjamin works for Northeast Michigan’s 211, answering calls from people who are in danger of being evicted, who are hungry, who cannot afford this month’s electric bill. She said the calls kept mounting as the pandemic worsened heading into the holiday season.
Around Thanksgiving, she told me, “I had more calls in the last two weeks than I’ve had all year combined.” As Christmas approached, she had noted that “desperation is kicking in as we wait for Congress to decide if we’re going to be able to continue feeding our families after the holiday. The additional food benefits were approved today for SNAP recipients, about a week later than they have been approved in previous months. That made me a little nervous, especially with a government shutdown looming. People aren’t surprised to hear about the additional benefits at the end of the month anymore, they’re calling and asking why they aren’t there yet.”
In her spare time, Benjamin runs Back to the Bay, which started as an informal Facebook operation to place filing cabinets full of food throughout the city, available to anyone, no questions asked. She said that, with the economy still weak, she had wondered whether Back to the Bay would be able to keep pace with the demand that always seems to surge around the holidays — especially since she often fills the cabinets with groceries bought with her own money — but was flooded with donations from across the country after my story ran in late October. “No less than a dozen FedEx trucks worth of boxes filled my porch,” she said. “Now we’re not going to have any problem keeping them full.”
I asked what she was thinking after the election, which was especially fraught in Michigan — a swing state where Biden’s victory was challenged by some Republican officials there. “The people who say there was fraud, who are angry, they are still my neighbors. They are also the people using the filing cabinets in the dead of night,” she told me. “I look at them and say, I don’t know who hurt you, but I’m here to help make things better for you, right now.”
Benjamin’s friend Mark Morand, a GM retiree who has volunteered with the food pantries of St. Vincent de Paul for nearly 60 years, told me he also saw a bump in donations after CNN’s story ran. He got a letter from an 85-year-old woman in Alabama who was born in Michigan and never knew her birth parents. “I can’t do much but I am sending you $20,” she wrote. Morand, who has been responding to each donation with a personal thank you, said he wrote to her: “Part of you came back to Michigan. … Part of you came home.”
Toward the end of November, Morand — who is also 85 — contracted bronchitis. At a visit to the doctor to get medicine to treat it, a test also confirmed Covid, he told me. “I’m scared, I’m not going to lie, my rascal,” he said, using his signature phrase. He had recently read the obituary of a woman close to his age whose husband lived in the same assisted care facility where Morand’s late wife had lived. “She passed away yesterday from Covid, and that’s all she had,” Morand told me. “And here I am with bronchitis and Covid.” By mid-December, he had recovered — and never stopped answering letters and tending to food bank administrative business from his home computer.
I asked him what he had taken away from the last year. “It has taught me when people find out there is a need, they will help each other,” he said. “They are looking for a place where they know they can personally make a difference.”
Photography by Rachel Mummey, Brittany Greeson, and Heather Fulbright for CNN, Dave Meyers and Brennan Long/City Center Allentown. Videography by Madeleine Stix, CNN.