Shalom is not a utopian destination; it is a constant journey.
— Randy Woodley

Let’s be honest. Life is hard. We all need help and guidance navigating the choppy waters and stormy seas that are a constant companion to existence. Many of us take for granted the resources that are available for piloting our way. But, Google isn’t an ever-present source of answers when you don’t have internet. A trip to the store isn’t a mindless pursuit when you don’t know the language. Saving money isn’t just about self-discipline when you don’t know how banking works. People can feel desperate and ostracized without an advocate to help them learn the things and understand the tools that will make their lives better. Things that make them feel part of a community.

Some of the residents of The Nicest Place in America.

Some of the residents of The Nicest Place in America.

Housed in an old high school building, aptly named “Union High,” surrounded by humble houses, Shalom Zone is that advocate for the residents of Gallatin, Tennessee. It’s an organization with a lofty mission. In their words, it’s designed to engage residents in the work of healing, peace, reconciliation, justice, and love so that they can grow beyond their current circumstances and, together, live as a beloved community.

As we slowly pulled into the parking lot, looking around to see where we should park and where we should enter, we were directed by the waving arms of Tara’s cousin, Katrina. Already a teenager when Tara was in pre-school, Katrina has always held a lofty place in Tara’s mind and heart. “I always thought you were the coolest,” she confessed over dinner later that day.

Earlier in the year, Katrina extended an invitation to spend some time with her in Gallatin when passing through Tennessee. She also recommended that we volunteer at Shalom Zone, and decided to join us. The coolest indeed.

The three of us walked through the brightly lit hallways like new students on the first day of school; lost but excited. We quickly found ourselves sitting at a table, talking to PJ, the Executive Director of Shalom Zone. She laid out all that the organization does, who they serve, and the history of the town. Through myriad programs, workshops, camps, classes, and collaborations, PJ and her team prove themselves to be an integral part of not just holding a community together, but advancing it. It was both exciting, and overwhelming. Again, much like the first day at a new school.

However, unlike the first day of school, we had the place mostly to ourselves. It was spring break for the local kids, so the traffic in the halls and rooms of the building was a fraction of the norm. That worked out well, as it allowed us to help tackle some cleaning and organizing projects that needed attention. It's amazing how filthy kids can make things. Seriously, I don't want to know what some of the stains and markings consist of.  Luckily, magic erasers exist as an antidote to children's collective yuck.

It's also amazing what a small change can lead to. Cleaning and organizing leaves a better facility for people to learn and interact in. Better educated and connected residents lead to stronger and more engaged residents. More involved residents lead to safer and nicer cities. It's the positive side of the butterfly effect.

Despite the economic stagnation and social challenges that Gallatin faces (much like so many other small towns across the United States), this little city keeps its chin up and even managed to be dubbed The Nicest Place in America. Working with Katrina, PJ, and other folks from the area, it was apparent that the title was well earned, but also no accident.

Do something, somewhere, to make a positive difference. Flap your wings. No matter how small or trivial it seems, it will make a difference.