Life in Community

The Difference Between a Community and a Cult

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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All Economics Is Local

Insights about community come from unexpected places. For example, in recent years coalition work on the negative impact of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (WB/IMF) has given rise to reflections on God’s call to community living.

A faith-based group centered in Washington, D.C., with connections across the country, has challenged the WB/IMF for several years on their half-century of largely ineffective lending practices toward poor nations. Known popularly as the Religious Working Group, this interdenominational gathering has acquired increasing expertise in the arcane and complex world of international borrowing and lending.

They have mastered concepts such as "multilateral and bilateral debts," "preferred creditor status," "structural adjustment programs," and many more. They continually discuss effective approaches to the staffers and directors at the international lending institutions, and assess the strategies employed after each meeting with those policy makers.

Each fall, on the occasion of the annual gathering of WB/IMF operatives from around the world, the Working Group holds a prayer service to ask divine guidance for themselves and these institutions in the all-important work of global development and justice. On Good Friday each year, they conduct a public Way of the Cross through the streets of Washington, D.C., stopping at the centers of economic power where decisions taken often result in Jesus being crucified again.

Predictably, a strengthening of ecumenical and community bonds has resulted from the countless hours that these Christians from various traditions have spent together. What is common in their theologies and ethical convictions has become so much more relevant than what divides the members of the Working Group.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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His Life Dilemma

The many communities that Father Jim Healy served during 35 years as a Catholic priest came together recently at his memorial service. The atmosphere was celebratory—scripture, music, sermon, poetry, and personal recollections all testified to the firm belief that Jim had passed from mortality to eternal happiness.

The texts and speakers laid particular emphasis on a God who is mercy, and how loving care for the most needy of the brothers and sisters becomes the final judgment on our lives. These were themes that Father Healy had stressed and lived throughout his years in ministry.

Mention was made of Healy’s many accomplishments: his 12 years as the beloved and forceful pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Virginia; his decision in the early 1980s to become a lawyer in order to help immigrants to the United States; his founding of the Washington Office on Haiti, as an advocacy center for that nation and its people.

The two-and-a-half-hour service fairly flew by as the various communities listened to one another and rejoiced in the tributes offered about this special friend, family member, pastor, brother priest, advocate, and, yes, prophet. The outpouring of affection and celebration reminded me of a much more grandiose funeral held recently in Chicago for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The passing of good and dedicated gospel ministers so often evokes such heartfelt tributes. It’s as if the communities they have served are echoing Christ’s words: "Well done, good and faithful servant...."

THIS TOUCHING memorial for Jim Healy should have surprised no one, therefore, except for the fact that he was gay and died with AIDS. Those dimensions of his life lent special poignancy to his funeral and left me, at least, with long thoughts about sexual orientation, mandatory celibacy, and God’s overriding parental love.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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A Special Community

For the first time in memory, the Latino community took to the streets of Washington, D.C., in large numbers on October 12, 1996. (The date carries much significance in that the dominant culture of North America celebrates it as "Columbus Day." Most others in this hemisphere call

it by other names—chief among them, "Indigenous Peoples Day.") To march with the thousands of Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters that day was to marvel at the many enriching aspects of this community in our midst.

First and most obvious is their youthfulness and vigor. Moving down Washington's lovely 16th Street toward Lafayette Square and the White House, one was carried along by wave after wave of enthusiastic Latino kids. Upon reflection, this phenomenon comes as no surprise. The major part of the population in just about every country from Mexico on south is under 15 years of age. That demographic fact raises interesting questions for our aging U.S. society as the next few decades unfold.

The sheer numbers of Latinos that day made a deep impression as well. Washington, D.C. police have all but given up attempts to calculate crowd size, given past difficulties and controversies around such estimates. I am left with impressions. For example, walking downhill somewhere in the middle of the throng, I looked ahead over a sea of humanity and could not see the lead marchers; looking behind me, it was the same—no end in sight. The Latinos were out in force.

Gratifying qualities of the Latino community penetrated my consciousness as we walked along. The Spanish language, whether understood or not, sounds musical, upbeat, and embracing when it surrounds you. The question pops into mind: Why would anyone want a law to prohibit such a lovely means of expression in multicultural United States?

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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The Breaking of Bread (Luke 24)

A recent survey, taken in a school for upper-middle-class American children, surfaced a startling statistic. When asked how many times per month each child sat down to an evening meal with the family, the average answer was once.

"Stay with us. It is nearly evening-the day is practically over."

We recoil at the long-range consequences of such informal family patterns. More positively, a statistic like that generates an immediate reaction in favor of the undisputed value that table fellowship has in building community.

"He took bread and pronounced the blessing...."

Whether it be the family, an intentional adult live-in community, the weekly or biweekly Bible study circle, the justice and peace solidarity group—whatever expression of community one examines, breaking bread together is of its essence. There is something about preparing, serving, sharing, enjoying, and even cleaning up that makes the community table a place like no other in the life of the group.

"He broke the bread..."

A community meal contains little that is casual or offhand. Obviously, this is true of the preparation. The cook(s) plan well ahead of time what food will most benefit the group. (In one community even the cardiac patient can count on special "heart-healthy" dishes when the principal meal might prove problematic.)

"...and began to distribute it to them."

Things are readied so that the meal will go on the table at the appointed time; late meals drag down community spirits. Often the cook doubles as waiter, making sure that each one has what s/he requires, thus avoiding the "boarding house" atmosphere of everyone for him/herself.

"With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him...."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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A Community of Nations

A visit to the United Nations stimulates reflections and emotions regarding humanity's striving for community. Approaching the U.N. complex from 46th Street and First Avenue, you see the flags of the 185 member nations flying at the same height, placed in the alpha-

betical order of their country's names. The sight speaks of equality—the Stars and Stripes of the world's superpower is number 175 in this even row of national banners.

Stepping from the sidewalk onto U.N. property, you learn that technically you have left the United States and now stand on international soil. The scene around you changes dramatically (or is this one's imagination?). It seems that most of those entering the U.N. building are people of color, a visual reminder of global population realities. Clearly the human community comes in all shades of black, brown, yellow, and white.

A guided tour of the United Nations calls to mind the significant moments in humanity's quest for community as represented in the 51-year history of this organization. From the dark days of World War II, when the Allied nations foresaw international collaboration in the service of peace, to the actual Charter of the United Nations and its ratification in the spring and fall of 1945, to the first General Assembly of the then-51 member states in January 1946, you get a sense of early gropings toward the "one world" that those pioneers envisioned.

The list of secretaries-general recalls the names that have become identified with the innumerable issues, dialogues, dramatics, and sheer boredom that have characterized this five-decade pursuit of a truly global community: Trygve Lie (Norway), Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden), U Thant (Burma), Kurt Waldheim (Austria), Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru), and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt). Each name speaks eloquently of humanity's yearning that "all may be one."

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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The International Community

Catholic religious congregations these days find themselves in uncharted waters as they increasingly move toward internationalizing their communities. For a variety of reasons, women’s and men’s orders find a multiplicity of nationalities represented in their local houses. Once again these sisters and brothers serve as models and mentors of what could be in the wider society.

Our country once prided itself on the half-truth that we were a “melting pot,” a homogenized, standardized people formed out of the variety of ethnic groups arriving on our shores. We believed that every group got an equal shot at that euphemism “the American Dream.” Only recently have we begun to listen as the minorities in our midst show us the fallacy of America as the successful melting pot. They have told us to look at the record and see how for decades the “pot” contained a whole people that could be bought and sold as property; how each generation of immigrants suffered mightily at the hands of the majority here; and how people of color continue to suffer the effects of America’s original sin— racism.

More recently we’ve heard multiculturalism held up as a better goal for America. Not a bad way to express it. Americans do after all represent and to some extent celebrate the distinctive gifts each group brings to the commonweal. We generally see ethnic diversity as a strength, despite examples like Proposition 187 which would deny our country the continuation of that invigorating otherness.

But multiculturalism by itself runs the risk of dividing us further, or polarizing the various races and nationalities among us. It could lead us into ghetto-like mentalities—each culture living by itself, without interference from any other. Multiculturalism, I submit, needs a further ingredient that religious congregations model today—the lived-out ideal of the international community.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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An Open Circle of Love

One can only marvel at couples who successfully manage life in community alongside their own needs as spouses. Communities by definition place demands on their members which sometimes feel overwhelming. The daily give and take in the household, meals in common, regular prayers, chores and other responsibilities, financial discussions, weekly meetings, communal ministries, routine daily requests for time and attention, tensions, and personal problems within the group-all of these add up to what someone has described as the "constant pull" of community on the individual. Sometimes it feels as if there is absolutely no time for oneself.

Of course, precisely herein lies the success or failure of any given community-the willingness of its members to get pulled out of themselves into the common life. The community that survives will have several in its number who can do this in rather extraordinary ways on behalf of the collective. In fact, every successful community we know has at least one pivotal person who, without setting him/herself over or above the rest, serves as the "mother/father." (From time to time, it's important to acknowledge these selfless community members, because they are the glue that holds the whole project together.)

Enter the married couple with their admitted need for physical and psychological space-for time apart, for intimacy, where they can argue and resolve disagreements-where they work out the never-ending requirements of a growing, healthy marriage. Viewed from the outside you ask: How in the world could the constant demands of community possibly mesh with the constant demands of the married relationship?

Yet there are married couples who manage gracefully their lives together and in community. We have seen a number of them do it. Not only that, but community members who are married become treasured gifts in the group. Their example points to a giving of themselves which, as we know, builds community.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1996
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Back Yard Community

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller once criticized Little League baseball for its interference in children's spontaneous play. He went so far as to say that the structured "fun" that adults impose on kids in these miniature versions of the big leagues was the worst thing that had happened to baseball in the last generation. Feller felt that the innumerable variations on organized baseball which kids constantly invented-games like "rollies to the bat" and "scrub"-as well as the general goofing off that kids did when left alone on ballfields, far surpassed the adult-ridden "games" of the Little League.

In terms of community-building, too, there's something to be said for the old ballplayer's nostalgia about a time when youngsters organized their own ball games and every other sort of game. Kids have an enormous capacity to form and maintain community during their playtime. There is organization, structure, discipline, sanction, forgiveness, spontaneity-and sheer fun-in the games devised by children when left on their own.

In the community where I live, we once counted six youngsters, ranging in age from 3 to 14. During one particular summer when the Olympic Games were taking place, these six, together with an assortment of their neighborhood friends, conducted their own games in the restricted confines of our inner-city, asphalt back yard. For hours each day, the kids replicated the running, jumping, vaulting, and throwing that they were watching on television in the evenings.

These special Summer Olympics featured trash barrels as props for all sorts of agility tests. The two sawhorses our community owns became the low and high hurdles, as well as measures for a couple of miniature pole vaulters. Chalk marks on the concrete marked starting and finishing lines.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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The Choice of God's People

Sojourners has invaded cyberspace. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Do we actively "surf around" in the e-mail universe, or does that world gradually envelope us?

Whichever, Sojourners has officially gone online and in this corner the question poses itself: Will sojourners@sojourners.com promote or weaken community? It's a legitimate concern.

The naysayers serve up visions of a world inhabited by solitary computer nerds, passing late-night hours in front of impersonal screens, massaging the various buttons that put them in touch with others of their ilk around the globe. The image of middle-aged men sitting alone at afternoon movies comes to mind. What does this have to do with being human?

And yet, and yet. Other experiences point to quite different scenarios. As people in touch with Christian missionaries around the world, we're being pushed by them to check into cyberspace daily. Our folks overseas may not have running water, but lots have managed to get online, and their world suddenly comes very close to ours. Community with them, via modem and words on a monitor, is real.

For a whole other reason, we're inclined to build community in the "Windows 95" world. The kids are already there. Who hasn't an experience of a 6- or 7-year-old in the family or community looking in amazement at our fumbling to hit the right button to get us out of some mysterious computer hole? They're naturals at it. And with reason. Cyberspace is the environment in which our children have grown up; it holds no fears for them. They're shaming us into entering this sometimes scary world.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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