Coffee with the Neighbors: an American Tradition

Coffee with the Neighbors: an American Tradition

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“The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.” –Hubert H. Humphrey

There was a time and place in America when people took time to actually know their neighbors.  We knew each other’s names, what we did for a living, maybe what night was spaghetti night, even the kids’ and pets’ names. We looked out for each other and kept vigil over the neighborhood as a whole. Neighbors were regarded as good friends, someone you could ask to borrow a rake or snag a cup of flour for a recipe. We enjoyed the weekends together as kids played in the backyard.

Of course, there was always “that one neighbor” – someone who was too loud, too grumpy, too nosy or even too weird. But even then, that neighbor was known.

These days, having a relationship with our neighbors has fallen completely to the wayside.

What if we made an effort to slow our lives down a bit, to create margin where every minute of the day isn’t scheduled, even double- or triple-booked.

What if we got to where we weren’t rushing around all day long, and had opportunity to chit chat with our neighbors here and there, perhaps even invite them over for a cup of coffee to get to know them a bit better?

Coffee is a wonderful common ground for opening up conversation with people you don’t know very well. And while it’s inviting, it also indicates a pleasant sort of brevity, where you know you aren’t locked in for a full evening of dinner and conversation, but perhaps 30 minutes to an hour of that precious commodity, time. It’s a chance for you to become a neighbor you always hoped you’d have, by extending a cup of warmth and hospitality that hopefully will be reciprocated as time goes on. You may not be best friends with your neighbors, but you know them -- even a bit of their story -- and can ask about their kids or their work when you see each other at the mailbox.

America used to Embrace Coffee with Neighbors

In the 40’s and 50’s in America, this wasn’t an uncommon practice. In fact, as the 1960’s rolled around, there was actually a low-profile political campaign that centered around inviting your neighbors over for coffee.

In 1962, the American Medical Association, Ronald Reagan, and an extension of the AMA called WHAM – Women Help American Medicine -- unveiled Operation Coffeecup. It was an effort to fight against President Kennedy’s bill that would begin a new medical program called “Medicare,” which would replace a struggling program of the day called “Eldercare,” to provide better care for the aging American population.

This Operation Coffeecup consisted of WHAM members inviting their neighbors over for a “spontaneous”, casual cup of coffee together, and then playing a record of Hollywood great Ronald Reagan speaking against “the socialization of medicine.”  Clearly, the efforts were ultimately futile, as we now have Medicare!

But the idea of inviting neighbors over for coffee is nothing new in our culture.

We aren’t saying you have to have a political agenda when inviting your neighbor over for a cup of coffee. We just see the untapped potential of restoring some of the greatness our parents and grandparents were able to appreciate in decades past in our country: taking the time to get to know and enjoy the people around you.  

There’s opportunity in setting political viewpoints and other beliefs aside and cultivating a community where you know each other and can call one another by name. The alternative is drifting into an anonymous, faceless, impersonal routine where if you need help one day, or someone next door did, you would have no one to turn to. Is that the community you want to live in? My guess is none of us do, and the status quo we live with now was an unintentional outcome as we all got distracted with our own lives.

Another way to look at it is the Biblical perspective of Love thy neighbor as thyself.

Let’s be the ones who help bring back community and neighborly friendship; let’s close down the laptop, put our phones on silent, turn off the TV and shut out any other distractions, and invite someone over for a cup of coffee, look them in the eye as we talk, and see how it changes things around us.

The value of relationships is what makes this country so great, so let’s restore it, one cup of great coffee at a time!

Curious about Reagan's Operation Coffeecup recording? You can watch it below! Somehow it seems more relevant today than it did then.