The value of a faith-based community in childrens 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.
Surrogate parenting inevitably takes place in community. What mothers and fathers have sought to live themselves and instill in their offspring by joining a particular faith-inspired group is reinforced in word and action by the other members. And parenting by the community does not end with the children of the group. After nearly 20 years of life in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, D.C., and 10 years of its Neighborhood Centers ministry to children, Sojourners can point to numerous "sons and daughters" who have received the nurturing that their families could not provide. Another community we know has accepted a next-door neighbors request to take responsibility for raising her grandson should anything happen to her.
TWO RELATED CONCERNS ABOUT community children inevitably arise. The first has to do with youngsters who simply do not fit in with community life for any number of valid reasonspersonality, fear, a sense of being overwhelmed. Its impossible to offer formulas to parents in such cases. Sometimes the young people in question simply need a sense that their parent or parents have not lost sight of the fact that they are a family. Providing a physical space in the community where their own family life gets attention might go a long way to calm the childs resistance to living in the larger group.
However, cases do present themselves where a young one absolutely rejects community life. We know of a wise parent who, on joining a community, promised her four children that should any of them find the new way of life impossible, she and they would return to their former nuclear family situation. Perhaps her foresight in promising this provided the children with confidence enough to remain in community, which they did.
A second concern is the need for community children to pursue the path of their own lives as they grow into adulthood. To state this is to repeat the obvious. However, children require constant and practical reinforcement of their radical freedom to be and become themselveseven if this means turning away from the way of life that has been theirs throughout the community years. The whole groupnot just the biological parentshas to act consistently on this freedom principle.
Community life for children requires as much stretching as it does for adults, if not more. An admonition in Pauls letter to the faith community at Colossae offers a clue in this regard. Commenting on responsibilities within Christian families, the apostle says to fathers: "Do not nag your children lest they lose heart." This is wise counsel for all parents and other adults who walk with children in the world of community.
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.