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"Macon needed something like this for a long time," says Bill Cutler, executive director of the nonprofit Macon-Bibb Housing Association and one of the forces behind Love Your Neighbor's Georgia branch. "Y'all have got a jewel of a man in Jim Ward." When an aide to Macon's mayor showed him some written material Ward had sent, Cutler says, he knew immediately that Love Your Neighbor was just what the Macon metro area of 300,000 needed. "We have problems here like everybody else," he explains. "Macon is about 50-50 black-white, and we have a lot of people who want to blame everything on racial differences and strife and what I call the invisible wall. I saw Love Your Neighbor as a good way to break down that wall and just be more civil to each other."
Ward was the guest of honor and speaker (along with Macon's mayor and a Bibb County commissioner) at a press conference in Macon this past June to officially kick off that city's Love Your Neighbor campaign. Besides the speeches, the event featured the ceremonial placing of bumper stickers on state troopers' cars and other government vehicles.
The Macon media have been supportive of the campaign. Cutler says his main problem right now is "grubbing for money" A donations to cover costs for bumper stickers (he says 30,000 public school students alone are clamoring for theirs), lapel pins and bookmarks, and signs and billboards. Macon TV stations are ahead of Miami in one area: A donated public service announcement has already begun airing.
This past September Macon religious leaders organized a citywide ecumenical Love Your Neighbor worship service. (The host, Pastor Bill Willis, credits James Ward for helping him recover from an alcohol addiction twenty years ago.) Georgia Gov. Zell Miller sent a Scripture-quoting letter to be read at the service: "I am so gratified that a program of reaching out to each other in understanding and love is being conducted in a Georgia city, and I hope that word of your efforts will . . . create a momentum that will cover the entire state." After the service, a local TV reporter interviewed an unidentified Love Your Neighbor volunteer who declared, "We're counting on it being all over Macon -- to lower the crime rate like it has in Miami."
Needless to say, the local Love Your Neighbor blizzard hasn't lowered the crime rate here, at least as far as anyone can tell.
And unless it's backed up with actions, its chances of dramatically affecting the collective psyche may be dim. "You get into the problem where Love Your Neighbor becomes a watchword like Just Say No," says Paul Cromwell, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Miami. "If you've just got the slogan, you've got nothing. You've got to get people to actually be truly concerned for their neighbor."
Though even the most dedicated Love Your Neighbor adherents aren't claiming any miracles, they point to the volume of positive response they've seen. "The whole idea of Love Your Neighbor is just to have everyone know about it, to feel it and eventually to live it," contends the Miami Coalition's Marilyn Culp. "It kind of changes the way you feel. We've had neighbors calling, saying, 'We've had ongoing feuds and we thought maybe this would help.' It does give you a sense that 'I really care about you, I care what happens to you.'"
It could be said that loving their neighbors is part of the job for Department of Human Services employees. And in that light, some DHS staffers resent institutionalized love being thrust on them via staff meetings and frequent written and verbal reminders from their bosses. "Every couple of months they call us all together and give us a pep talk," says one worker. '"Love your neighbor and blah-blah-blah and Love Your Neighbor and blah-blah-blah and Love your neighbor.' It reminds me of a father gathering the family around the kitchen table and telling them, 'Now we're all going to get along and be a close-knit family.'"
Contends another staffer: "It's just a distraction. We have waiting lists for services with thousands of names. Don't love them, give them services."
"You can give me the benefits and just like me," jokes another.
"As nice as Love Your Neighbor is in the abstract, it's also oppressive," asserts a DHS employee. "It's really out of hand. We're forced to put bumper stickers on our cars -- and they go around to check bumpers."
Some staffers also point out that the dozen or so members of the Love Your Neighbor Ensemble are all DHS employees who practice and perform during paid working hours and who make use of county buses to travel to and from their performances. They also assert that their own department, which operates with a $98 million annual budget, is top-heavy with managers earning high salaries (Ward earns more than $125,000 per year; deputy director Mae Bryant almost $106,000; director of office administration Carmen Morrina $79,000) -- money that would be better spent to help the agency's needy clients.
None of the disgruntled workers would allow their names to be published in this story. Observed one: "It's medieval what would happen to us if our names were printed."