The Common Good

Searching for Community in a Hyper-Mobile Culture

My friend Joe told me the story of relocating his family to be part of a church that takes community seriously. After a year in the new location, he met with one of his pastors to talk about how things were going. Life was good, Joe reflected, and he was grateful for the welcome that he and his family had received at the new church. But he wasn't sure that he was experiencing the community he had expected. Frankly, Joe had hoped for more.

The pastor listened to his misgivings, then asked how long Joe and his family had been there. "About a year," he replied.

"Then I guess you've got about a year's worth of community," his pastor said matter-of-factly. "Stay another year and you'll have two years' worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you're looking for."

Our hunger for "community" may be the clearest contemporary expression of the heart's yearning for its true home. Despite cell phones and social networks that create the possibility for almost constant contact with the people we love, most of us feel alienated from our neighbors and unsure of where we belong. We ache with desire for true community, yet all of our social habits push us to seek what we're longing for somewhere else.

If we stand back and look at ourselves from a distance, we can see the paradox: the same restlessness that sends us searching for community also keeps us from settling down wherever we are. From a distance, it's almost funny. But when I'm actually living my life in real time, trying to pay attention to the person in front of me while fighting the temptation to think about the other things I might be doing if I weren't having this conversation, I'm not laughing. Instead, I feel as though I'm being subjected to the medieval torture of having a horse tied to each of my limbs and spurred to run in opposite directions.

Like soldiers who've been on the front lines for back-to-back tours, we are sensitized to our basic human need for community by the extreme lack of it in a hyper-mobile culture. But in an economy of limitless growth that depends on the continual creation of unfulfilled desire, community, like anything else, can be reduced to a commodity that does not satisfy the spirit but only sends us rushing off in search of greater insight and understanding somewhere else. At best, our deepest longings point us homeward. But desire alone does not make a home. Community demands that we do the long, hard work of life with other people in the place where we are.

My friend Mary Nelson has taught me something about how stability makes community development possible. When she went to the West Side of Chicago in 1968 to help her brother get settled into his new Lutheran parish, she thought she'd only stay for the summer. But riots set the neighborhood ablaze that summer, and Mary got to work trying help a little church be good news to its neighbors. Her hopes were the hopes of every young person who's ever tried their hand at urban ministry. Some four decades later, though, Mary's hopes have become reality. Through the ministry of Bethel New Life, which Mary served as CEO for 26 years, neighbors of Bethel Lutheran Church have access to affordable health care, employment services, homes they can afford, after school programs for kids, and a support network for seniors. How did all this happen? Because Mary (and many others) chose to stay and work for a better community. Having given her life to West Garfield Park, Mary has about a life's worth of community.

"In whatever place you find yourself," the desert father Anthony said, "do not easily leave it." Folks like Mary help me see the wisdom of his counsel. Which is why I'm looking forward to spending a week with her in my hometown this summer, teaching on the Beloved Community for Duke Divinity School's Summer Institute, May 31-June 5. The Institute's organizers tell me there's still some scholarship money available for folks who'd like to join us. So consider this an invitation to come and join us for a week. Maybe you'll end up staying forty years.

portrait-jonathan-wilson-hartgroveJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com).

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