The Values Essays

The Value of Community

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

In my life, community made a huge difference. Teachers…public school and Sunday School…created a community for me that provided therapeutic remediation for the chaos of my family life. Even though, I went to fourteen different elementary schools, (yes, you read that correctly) these communities often provided the teacher-student relationships that nurtured me and created a place of safety.

Examples of this nurturing vary from poignant to funny to inspirational. An early grade school teacher taught me to open bobby pins with my fingers instead of with my teeth. At eight years old, I interpreted this teaching as a vastly important skill for being a woman of class. Mrs. Schwitz, my fifth grade teacher saw something special in me and convinced the faculty that I could be MC of May Day, an honor reserved only for eighth graders. My gym teacher in high school drove me to physical therapy for a damaged elbow. My senior year, Mr. Darrington negotiated with the drug store where I worked to allow me the necessary time off to play the lead in the opera. Countless Sunday School teachers transported me to and from church events that I would not have attended without their support. The community rose to the occasion of rearing me in ways that my parents could not or would not---even as constantly mobile as community was for me. When my Mother gave me one day to find a job and a place to stay or move again for my senior year of high school, it was a Sunday School teacher and my music teacher who opened their homes to me so I could finish high school where I started.

Scott Peck in his book, A Different Drum, posits that the seven hallmarks of authentic community are Inclusive, Realistic, Reflective, Therapeutic, Has conflict, Is consensual, and Is spiritual. As a nation and as a people, we crave community. Dr. Clyde Crews, professor at Bellermine College, Louisville, KY, says, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul."  Community gives us roots.

Organizations as diverse as athletic teams, sororities, fraternities, various religions, and even corporations, know the value of community and create a sense of belonging in multiple ways. Rituals, songs, symbols, logos…are all employed to help people feel that sense of rootedness we crave.  

By contrast, a lack of community creates fear and anxiety. Have you pondered the notion that for the first time in the history of civilization it is safer to live in the wilderness than in most of our major cities? Fear finds fertile ground in not knowing each other. Community nurtures knowing and being known.

The decade of the nineties seemed to indicate that, globally, we were making significant progress in creating community---fall of the Berlin Wall, stepped-up nuclear disarmament, championing of women's rights in new places of the globe, end of the Cold War, remarkable handshakes between leaders of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, Nelson Mandela's dramatic release from prison and ascendancy to the Presidency of South Africa, deployment of American troops on three continents for missions of mercy and humanitarian relief, rapport building between North and South Korea, unimaginable prospects of reconciliation between Britain and the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein.

What a list! We must remember these positive occurrences---because September 11, 2001 started the Twenty-first century off in the opposite direction. Some would say an undercurrent of phenomena that sabotage community was present even during the great strides of the nineties, i.e., presumed privileges of the rich and powerful and assumed superiority of some religious beliefs over others. We do, as human beings, have great affinity for using God to justify our own agendas, oftentimes selfish agendas, which tear down community instead building a global village.

But, September 11 also provided an object lesson in interdependence. Financial big shots needed firefighters, Republicans and Democrats needed and got hugs from each other. Strangers needed friends and found them. Walkers needed rides that were provided. Survivors needed to know the names an stories of those who died in order to feel connects. Some say, New York City has become a kinder and gentler city since September 11, 2001.

Perhaps New York learned the lesson that belonging means accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly---joys and sorrows, faults and virtues, triumphs and defeats. The privileges of community require accepting the sacrifices of community. Each of us must analyze the cost/benefit ratio for ourselves, and therein, lies the challenge. And, of course, the larger the community being examined the greater the challenge of inclusivity and the inevitable conflict. But start where you are. How inclusive do you choose to be in your everyday living? How do you handle conflict if it occurs in the grocery store? Model how you want the larger world to be inclusive, to handle conflict.

Returning to Scott Peck's characteristics of community---what does being therapeutic mean when creating community at any level---city, town, church, civic club? Why did Peck select this characteristic? First, a community that adds value to an individual's life will be a safe place to search, to explore, to make mistakes, to express individuality without fear of rejection by the larger group. No small order. I predict that the challenge of functioning therapeutically, i.e., handling conflict in grace-filled ways, compelled Peck to also include spirituality as a hallmark of authentic community. If we humans are going to pull off community, it requires us to move closer to whatever you know the mystery of God to be. The closer we move to God-as-we-define-God, the closer we move to each other.  

My Greatest Example of Community Award goes to Alcoholic Anonymous. In my hometown, I received the great, good privilege of serving as UNofficial pastor to parts of the AA community. Once, when asked to do a funeral service, I arranged to attend the visitation for the express purpose of getting to know the deceased in preparation for the eulogy the next day. To my surprise, more than thirty persons stayed after the visitation to speak with me. After the third person introduced himself by saying, "Hello my name is Bill" and the group responded, "Hi Bill," that I realized, in effect, I was attending an AA meeting. I left feeling humble and impressed. These folks experienced the depths of despair and literally resurrected their lives through what it means to be community in AA. Interdependence is the key----long word, complex meaning, and compelling task.

After several of these experiences with AA, I couldn't help but be envious that the AA community somehow seems to do community better than most churches! Why is that? One alcoholic friend told me the answer rests in an AA saying, "Churches are full of people who are afraid of going to hell; AA is full of people who have been there already and don't want to go back." Great wisdom. Another friend says the difference is that AA folks declare the king has no clothes on; church folks sometimes know but are afraid to say so in community.

Remember the scene in the Sally Field movie, Places in the Heart. After all the hurt and conflict plays itself out on the screen, the camera pans the little church and we see all the people who have been part of the saga…black folks, white folks, deceased, living, perpetrators and victims…all there together in God's house of worship, around God's table and part of God's family…a fabulous, accurate and appropriate vision of community.  

updated: 8 years ago


About communityMonday, August 17th 2009 7:13PM

Oh, does this open up a whole range of things to comment upon!

I'll start with AA. It has been my privilege a few times in 29 years of ministry to be trusted to know that some of my parishioners were members of AA. In my first parish, in the 1970's (!), Frank so identified himself. He had been a member of around 25 years then, so he must have been among the early ones. A couple of Sunday mornings instead of a sermon, Frank and I sat on stools in the aisle of the church and talked about alcoholism, AA, and opened it up for questions. I still remember those two days!

But what I really remember about all of the AA folks is this: They understand what GRACE is about! I suppose because they have really experienced it at a level most of us don't reach.

When I first read this section, I wondered why you didn't have this in the section on GRACE. But, on reflection, it does belong in community. Maybe it actually takes a community to be present before GRACE can operate?

Finally this on community. That is the problem we face in a peculiar way here in the US of A. We have been fed so much stuff about the individual that we are in serious danger of losing all sense of community. As I watch some of the current events, think those town-hall meetings, I am struck by this one observation. Are any of those protesters thinking about the well-being of their neighbor? For even an second?

Ask you good husband if he happens to have a Small Catechism tucked away somewhere. Note how Blessed Martin explains the 10 Commandments. Now you know where I am coming from.

Enjoying the conversation,