Without doubt most Sojourners readers have an answer to the question: With whom do I form community? Indeed we could even say that all people of faithand probably most human beingscan name their community. It's an ominous gap not to be able to do so. Our communities may not conform to any blueprint, but we know we have them.
That's why we keep insisting in these pages that community comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I once knew two elderly shut-ins, longtime friends, both of whom lived alone. Every day they watched a religious program on television and as it ended each would offer a prayer for the other. They knew who formed their unique community.
The main requirement for community seems to be that the individual have a sense of forming part of a group, and that the group acknowledge that fact and act on it. A missionary from Africa once told me how they celebrated Communion in a young Christian community there. At Communion time members of the gathering would hurry from the altar with portions of the bread so that the sick would receive it at the same time as those present at the service. No doubt about membership in that community.
Why is community a near-universal experienceespecially for people of faith? One person put it this way: "Community is God's strategy for reaching the world." That's a neat way of saying that as communityrather than as individualswe model what God has in mind for humanity. Think of what community demands of us: commitment, selflessness, concern for the common good, humility, large doses of patience, forgiveness. These are New Creation values, the ones Jesus outlined in the Sermon on the Mount as his guidelines for God's reign among humans.
Community exemplifies living "as if"as if we are essentially relational beings; as if we can live together in peace; as if we can commit to something beyond ourselves; as if our faith journey is best done in company; as if our God is unity in Trinity, the ultimate model for all gatherings of humans.
Recently I saw an example of the wide possibilities that the experience of community offers, as well as a living out of these "as ifs." Throughout the last seven or eight months of his life, a dear friend gathered around his death bed members of all the communities that had enriched his life. These various communities thereby came to know the many facets of our friend's sojourn on earth.
As a lawyer he had a professional community; as a church-going Christian he had a worshiping community; his family formed another community, as did the group with whom he learned about spirituality and spiritual direction; his health care providers became a very important community for him as his life ebbed away.
What was equally remarkable about our friend was his way of engaging each of these communities in his dying process. Without dramatics he specifically asked us to walk with him consciously toward the unknown. He lived his way toward death allowing us to share each moment. His one request to all of us was a prayer that he not lose hope, that he not despair.
That gathering of communities experienced through their dying member a way of finishing this life "as if" there is life beyond death, "as if" there is a God who gathers us all home, "as if" we are destined for eternal happiness.
May all of us receiveand in our time givesuch a grace through our life in community.
Joe Nangle was outreach director at Sojourners when this article appeared.