These monthly reflections generally look at what community is, or should be. No particular formula or ideal way of achieving community gets held up as unique. We simply invite the reader to consider the shared life of faith from every angle, often pointing to the lived experiences, common goals, successes, and failures of those who have engaged in building community. And community, we maintain, comes in all sorts of sizes and shapes. Live-in, parish, congregational, weekly, biweekly groupings-all and each may legitimately claim the title of community.
Less frequent, but no less important in these reflections, is a consideration of the other side of the coin-what community is not. Nevertheless, a look at the shadow side of community, so to speak, can benefit all who try to live out their life in God together with brothers and sisters in the same household of faith. As a famous writer once pointed out, if you get very used to the picture of a person riding a horse, imagine a horse riding the person.
WHAT, THEN, are communities not?
They are not group houses. Most everyone knows this. Even the intentional coming together these days of usually young men and women in communal dwelling situations does not a community make. While entirely appropriate and beneficial for the members, these arrangements, even with a high degree of structure, do not of themselves fulfill what is required for true community.
Their members generally live together for legitimate but completely utilitarian reasons-it's easier, cheaper, and more convenient this way. The cost of living, the single lifestyle, and congeniality are the factors that drive such group houses. The members themselves know the difference between what they are doing and true community life. Sometimes the group does become community.
Nor are communities halfway houses. This should be obvious. The halfway house, designed to deal with specific problems such as recovery from chemical dependency, mental illness, or physical disability, can look much like a community. Sometimes it might develop into true community. But of themselves, halfway houses begin for quite specific ends and generally fulfill those ends without becoming communities.
Communities usually are not found among club members-though again many a community has grown out of such convivial comings together. In fact just such natural groupings formed the original starting point for the now-extensive base Christian communities in the Latin American churches. Pastors sought out any and all gatherings of people around an objective-however mundane-and played an evangelizing role within the group with the hope that with God's grace it might become a true community.
Community does not correspond either to phrases so often heard today, such as "the African-American community," "the gay and lesbian community," or "the homeless community." These are really a total misuse of the term "community."
True communities surely exist among the millions of African Americans, gays and lesbians, homeless, or any other group in our society. But the enormous ethnic, racial, and economic groups of people who populate America are not unified or purposeful the way true community must be. They are as diverse as every other distinct group in the world. To call them communities is a misnomer.
While much of this reflection appears self-evident, it does point the way perhaps to a deeper consideration of what community really is, and what it demands of anyone who would live it. In the end true community seems to flow out of words that Jesus spoke at a crucial time in his life-the night before he died-to the community that had gathered around him: "You did not choose me but I chose you" (John 15:16). Looked at in this way, community becomes a sacred vocation that far surpasses all other gatherings of people, however valid or noble these might be.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.