What is the Westminster Commons?

Aug 11, 2023

Back in October 2022, I started dreaming about hosting a big, multicultural “Friendsgiving” meal on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I wanted to make sure our friends from Afghanistan, the Rahimi family, could join in the fun of this most American of holidays. But then I started thinking of all the amazing people I know from countries around the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all sit down to a meal together and give thanks for every good thing in the world?

Once I started to imagine this meal, I couldn’t stop talking about it. There has been so much isolation and division over the past few years–I was hungry for connection. I met some neighbors on Chestnut Street, David Pynchon and Caitlin Lyons, who caught the spark of my vision and fanned it into a flame. Elham Malik, the VISTA worker for FOCUS, also wanted to make the Friendsgiving dinner happen. We made a whole plan–and then COVID rates went up and it was clear we couldn’t go ahead with an indoor meal.

By that point, our team was committed to bringing people together, one way or another. We came up with Plan B: an outdoor event with our favorite neighborhood reggae band, a community art project, a gratitude tree and games. On the date itself, bad weather pushed us back indoors. All sorts of people showed up and danced and played and met neighbors from all over the world. Joy Tallmadge, Belinda Quaye, and Judy Hartley joined the team that ran the event. Everyone wanted to know when we could do it again.

And that’s how “Westminster Commons” came to be. After our first event in November 2022, we hosted a smaller Winter Solstice bonfire gathering in our little garden on State Street, huddling around Lily Easton’s portable fire pit and singing “Let It Snow!” We had a bigger gathering for “Sunny Sunday Sundaes” in January 2023. That event included tables where you could help someone practice English OR teach someone a few words in a different language. On February 14th, the weather was warm so we set up tables outside the church on State Street and invited everyone who passed by to create a Valentine for one (or more) of their neighbors. And in April we had a lot of fun with our “Slipping Into Spring” event: decorating clay tiles, playing Human Bingo and eating chocolate pudding with gummy worms mixed in.

Around that time, my husband Dan showed me an opinion piece in the New York Times by an author connected to New America, a think tank in Washington, DC. The writer argued that as we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, our country needs thousands of grassroots projects that bring people together and cultivate a sense of “civic belonging.” Together, these projects would build our sense that our nation has a future as a multiracial, inclusive democracy. New America was starting a program to support this work called the US@250 Fellowship. “You should apply for this,” Dan told me. “It’s exactly what you’ve been working on.”

He was right, of course. When we host events and invite our congregation, our neighbors in Center Square, the FOCUS Breakfast guests, the Afghan refugees we know and all of the people who come to our Sunday afternoon Conversation Club, we are doing more than bringing all of our friends together for a party. We’re creating a space where everyone belongs, a community where everyone’s story is part of the bigger story of US. We started off just wanting to have a Thanksgiving Dinner and before we knew it we were shoring up the foundations of our democracy. Civic engagement–voting, engaging with elected officials, participating in public meetings–begins with civic belonging.

Does that sound a little grandiose? Well, ever since I found out that I am one of the “Inaugural Fellows” of the US@250 initiative of New America I’ve been thinking a little bigger about the little project I started with a few neighbors last fall. Now I can’t stop asking: What becomes possible when we come together? Come join me and we’ll find out together!

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