Community

A Unifying Purpose

It's amazing how quickly community develops in special circumstances. Recently the uniqueness of one man's last days served as catalyst for a true community, which, now that he has passed on, will cease to exist.

Don broke his neck as a 14-year-old and lived as a quadriplegic for half a century. Despite his disability he finished high school and college, did graduate work, and lived a productive, fulfilled life.

In the past year, Don's lungs began to fail, a series of infections weakened him, and he drew near death. A group of us gathered around Don, our unifying purpose to ease his dying process.

Foremost was an only niece, who had received constant nurture from her uncle after the premature death of her father, Don's brother. The almost palpable love between uncle and niece, as she nursed him through his final weeks, provided the glue for all who joined them during those days.

The attending physician, a longtime friend of Don's, gave of himself extensively during this period: daily visits to the sick man's home or the hospital; contact by phone in moments of crisis; and an extraordinary role in providing his patient with appropriate spiritual assistance near the end.

The good doctor asked if I would form part of this unique community as a minister of the gospel. Although Don claimed no particular Christian tradition, he was deeply spiritual and wanted the opinion of a priest regarding the appropriateness of turning off life-sustaining machines when these had become entirely artificial. The dying man's concern in this regard was very practical. He wanted to leave behind a substantial scholarship fund for quadriplegics at the university he had attended, and feared depleting the money in the fund with technological efforts to keep him "alive."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1995
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Clans and Clubs

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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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From Peru to Oklahoma

In 1995, several faith communities in the southern Andean region of Peru sent a remarkable message to the United States. Largely "campesino" (peasant) in makeup, these parishes and congregations expressed their concern and sympathy for Americans in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City tragedy.

The history of the groups who made this gesture offers much food for thought to all of us who work at building community. During the '80s, inhabitants of the Peruvian highlands suffered horrendously at the hands of the Shining Path terrorists and the Peruvian military counterinsurgency forces. Peru had one of the world's worst human rights records, as guerrillas and soldiers outdid one another in atrocities against innocent civilians caught in the middle.

Given this history, one could understand that communities in the Peruvian highlands would readily empathize with the victims of a bombing and a country in mourning. Indeed, it is quite possible that their personal and collective suffering gives them the sensitivity to understand and respond to others' tragedies.

Still, the empathy, outreach, and brotherly and sisterly concern that those good people in Peru showed us, complete strangers and citizens of a far-off country, gives me pause. Those peasant communities, themselves victims of enormous violations, exhibited a remarkable capacity to embrace a hurting world—ours—and to reach out to a numbed populace—us.

Probing deeper, in their outreach to us we see Christians capable of forgiving our affluence and domination, capable of overlooking the fact that historically the United States could well be called their oppressor. We have lived off the poverty of countries like Peru for generations.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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Keeping the Vision Alive: Franciscan Lessons

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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What's In It For Me?

VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES

Consider spending time living simply in community with others and working for social justice. The diversity of gifts that volunteers bring to a period of service and the gifts that they receive in return are invaluable to the ongoing process of partnership and empowerment which the following organizations strive to build.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief, service, and development agency of North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, has volunteer positions available in North America and in some 50 other countries. Domestic positions are for a two-year term, and international positions are for three years. In addition, there are weeklong domestic service experiences available in Appalachia, Portland, Chicago, Toronto, and Montreal. Leadership training is also available for minorities through Summer Service, Service Internship Program, and MCC Canada's summer Native Gardening program. Contact MCC, 21 South 12th St., P.O. Box 500, Akron, PA 17501-0500; (717) 859-1151.

Lutheran Service Corps (LSC) is an urban ministry committed to addressing issues of social and economic injustice in Omaha, Nebraska. In exchange for one year of service, LSC provides the volunteer with housing, food, work-related transportation, health insurance, a monthly stipend, and a long distance telephone allowance. The period of service begins in September 1995 and ends in July 1996. Positions include work with the Nebraska AIDS project, Women Against Violence Program, and the MICAH House Emergency Family Shelter. Contact LSC, 6220 N. 30th St., Omaha, NE 68111; (402) 457-5890.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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In the Face of Evil: The Strength of Community

Three American soldiers committed suicide in the first few months after U.S. forces arrived in Haiti in September 1994. Speculation on the reason for these tragedies centered on the inability of those three young persons to stand the inhuman conditions they found in that country.

An acquaintance of ours formed part of the delegation that returned to Haiti with President Aristide on October 15 of that year. She described the dramatic and unsettling picture of Haitian people bathing, washing clothes, and even drinking from the sewer-like water running along the roadside in front of American service men and women standing guard. How does one view such an inhuman scene for hours on end without great despair?

One way is together with a faith community. In August 1993 a group sponsored by the Church of the Saviour's Ministry of Money in Washington, D.C., journeyed to Bosnia on a "Pilgrimage of Reverse Mission." The "reverse mission" of the Ministry of Money is to aid the conscientization of First World Christians to the reality of the hurting world beyond our shores.

During our 10 days in the devastated Bosnian countryside, we, like our military personnel in Haiti, looked into the face of evil and its consequences. The difference was that we had each other's Christian faith as our support. Not that our "pilgrimage community" sought to evade what we were seeing through escapist prayer or frivolous theological rationalizing. None of our group could pass through Bosnia and be satisfied only with asking God to help the many victims we encountered; nor could we submerge the conflict we were witnessing into a reflection on "life hereafter." The insults to God's sons and daughters resulting from the killing taking place in Bosnia prevented any of that.

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Sojourners Magazine December 1994-January 1995
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Seeds of Community

From time to time, we find ourselves called to form temporary communities. A stay in the hospital, the pilgrimage to an area of conflict, an occasional weekend reunion with one's extended family—these exceptional times present opportunities for true community, though we may miss seeing them as such. They surely require of us many of the same skills demanded by the more ordinary experiences of community.

In reflecting here on these occasional communities, we do not mean to include the brief exchanges of "I'm OK, you're OK." These are not the stuff of community. Rather, this meditation is about the intense life situations, which, though brief, draw us into true community. They are the building blocks of community just as surely as are the longer-term commitments to a stable and intentional group striving to achieve a purposeful communal life.

These occasional communities demand much of the best that is in us. Take the hospital stay, for example. We heard once of two men in a suburban hospital on the eve of tests to determine the extent of their respective coronary heart disease. One of them was beside himself at the possibility that the next day's examinations would show a potentially crippling and life-threatening condition. The other, faced with the same bleak prospects, was able to reach out to the first and help him somewhat overcome the near-paralyzing fear he felt. This dynamic between them resulted in a communal bond that carried over to the day of the tests, the tension-filled moments when the results came, and the process of each getting on with his life in the new and limiting circumstances of heart trouble.

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Sojourners Magazine November 1994
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Raised in Community: Extending the

The value of a faith-based community in children’s lives cannot be overestimated. When a child grows up with the knowledge that he or she belongs to a family that in turn belongs to a larger group of "parents" and "siblings," it offers the young one an unparalleled breadth and depth of developmental opportunities.

In an age and society where role models for children are in short supply, community living presents youngsters with multiple examples of good folks to imitate. By definition community consists of different personality types all striving to discover and live out what it means to be faithful. Children growing up in such a varied environment cannot help but profit and prosper.

True, it seems at times that the young ones fail to take in the lessons offered by community members. Experience teaches, however, that children rarely miss the living lessons around them. This is especially true in the intense environment that community presents. We know of a young woman who grew up in a community without seeming to take much interest, much less share in its life. However, her application essay for college centered on the rich diversity of personalities that she had observed over the years at the common dining table.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1994
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Finding Renewal in Rest

Spending a night together helps strengthen the bonds of community. Somehow the psychological impact of knowing that the group will stay the night and not have to "rush back," that you will rise in the morning and take those first drowsy steps together into a new day, that your initial encounters will take place over juice and coffee—these very ordinary details of life go far to build the cohesiveness that is so necessary for community. For that reason above all, successful communities include overnight retreats in their annual plans.

Of course, other considerations go into the need for regular retreats. The community needs, in Jesus’ words, to "come aside and rest awhile." Getting away as a group is good for the spirit and body of each and all. People on retreat tend to be more their true, good selves, and in that sort of climate the members renew their reasons for having come together in the first place. The common vision is brushed up; shared ideals get focused.

The setting for a retreat generally lends itself to tension-free hours. Our times have been gifted with numerous places for "active relaxation." It’s as if the killing pace of late 20th-century life has taught us the need for a refuge, sanctuary, or haven, where we can breathe deeply, sleep soundly, and interact calmly. Such locations exist in virtually every part of our country and must be counted as some of God’s choicest graces.

Retreat-goers have learned the value of free time, or better stated, time for personal solitude and reflection. There was a time when going on a retreat meant an effort to fill up every waking—and some non-waking—hour with activities. Within such a mindset the very word "retreat" becomes a misnomer. Fortunately we have moved away from that counterproductive era of frantic "retreats."

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Sojourners Magazine August 1994
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The Quiet Center

Every successful community relies on the member who is its heart. This is true for communities that live together and for those that live apart but gather regularly. If they are to survive and flourish, all need that person who is the unifier, the glue, the center.

He or she may not exercise authority in the community, at least in the way it is usually understood. They may sometimes be less than visible, especially when the community goes about one of its special activities like the celebration of an important event or the carrying out of a public action. When the community has to discuss a serious question, this core person quite possibly will not figure prominently in the decision. Rarely will he or she serve the community as its prophet—calling the group to places as yet uncharted.

Yet day in and day out the collective counts on the heart person in its midst for those connective gestures that make life in common livable and attractive. He or she has an eye for detail, for the person or situation that needs attention. Perhaps it's just a word to the community member who is feeling overwhelmed; it might be the act of straightening up the living room; it's the thought of baking a cake for the upcoming gathering; or it's simply reminding everyone that there is a meeting coming up. Consistently this person at the center of the community's life provides the lubricant that makes it all run more smoothly.

In one community we know about this heart person was a man, in another a woman. Each was indispensable for the life of the group. Theirs was never a nagging presence, rather one of immense and selfless service born out of a conviction that the common life had enormous value for all and was worth the daily trouble of making it happen.

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Sojourners Magazine July 1994
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