When Did We Stop Trusting Each Other?

As people ask about my pastoral experience, my journey now seems to take on more significance to the listener. No one really knew anything about Ferguson, Missouri before a local police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in a part of the city that has long been marginalized. People in and around St. Louis only knew it – if they knew it at all – as a part of North St. Louis County that has seen significant out-migration of whites over the past two decades. That’s where I started my pastoral ministry, in Ferguson. People know it now or at least know what they read about Ferguson in the papers and on Facebook, or hear about it on the local news. In fact as I watched the evening news tonight from my far-removed easy chair in South Carolina, I saw faces of people I know who themselves are on the frontlines fighting for a just society. But I do not intend to add my thoughts to the long list of those who have commented online about Ferguson; I remind you of my roots because every time I see or read anything about Ferguson, a community that was formative in my own professional development, I wonder when we stopped trusting each other.

I also wonder if this is even the right question. Maybe it is that we never started trusting each other? According to the General Social Survey which “has been monitoring societal change and studying the growing complexity of American society” since 1972 (see http://www.norc.org/Research/Projects/Pages/general-social-survey.aspx), we Americans did trust each other at one time. Over 40 years ago half of Americans said that most people could be trusted – today only one third feel the same. The Associated Press noted trust “has been quietly draining away” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/30/poll-americans-trust_n_4363884.html). Put in real terms, that means in 1972 an estimated 105 million people were optimistic about the trustworthiness of their fellow Americans; today the estimated number is just under 96 million. So while the U.S. population has grown from 209 million to 319 million over the past 42 years, the raw number of people who report that people can generally be trusted has fallen by almost 10 million people. That is more than the current population of New York City.

This got me thinking about some of my own research findings. A couple of years ago I conducted a study of two urban congregations and asked the very trust question included on the General Social Survey. This population of primarily low to moderate income African American active churchgoers mirrored the general population with 28% reporting that people can be trusted. Last summer, colleagues and I conducted a large study of African Americans in a major metropolitan area and asked a battery of questions about trust that I also asked of the congregations I studied. In the congregational study, 61% of people said they could trust their neighbors a lot or some, while in the city-wide study it was almost 56% of people. When asking how much you trust the police in your local area, nearly 71% in the city-wide study said they could trust them a lot or some, and among urban congregants it was nearly 76%. In a rather non-statistical way (my apologies to all my stats professors), in the city-wide population I looked at the differences in trust by how much people reported attending worship. I am happy to note that as one reported more worship attendance, they became (very moderately) less distrustful!

So why did I even look at these numbers and why do I bother to muse about them? I hoped by some chance people of faith, those of us who are actively involved in a faith community and who claim a strong faith orientation might, just somehow, trust each other more. I hoped that we could offer that to a hurting society. I hoped that we would be so transformed by the Word that we could be, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s words, Christ above culture. Yet I am reminded again of my time in Ferguson and that the thrust of my ministry since I recognized my call has been about Christ transforming culture.

The gradual erosion of trust in America is coupled with a declining participation in civic organizations and worship attendance. We fail to mingle with each other as we once did which leaves us not knowing or appreciating (or trusting) our neighbor. The fact that 39% of a sample of active churchgoers reported being distrustful of their neighbors says a lot about who we are as Americans and the formidable task we face in the church to rebuild that trust. Growing racial tensions are but one example of that distrust, but one that simply must be addressed as the U.S. becomes more diverse. I believe we clergy and active laypersons have an obligation to discuss openly and honestly what stands in the way of our ability to trust others, particularly those who are different. It is not enough to preach about it on Sunday morning or to discuss it in Sunday school class; we need to go outside our walls and have meaningful conversations with others who don’t believe and think the same way we do. We must be vulnerable and trust in the unknown. We have to let go and know that in our letting go God will create anew. We have to speak truth to power. And, for those of us in positions of power and privilege, we must own how we are explicitly and implicitly part of a system that breeds distrust.

The sad truth is that when it comes to trusting each other, we don’t do a good job in America. I pray that we in the United Church of Christ can continue to be Christ transforming culture.

Photo: I took this photo near the German Clock Museum in the Black Forest town of Furtwangen in Schwarzwald. (2 July 2014) The words read, “God’s word stands forever!”

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