As a child, community was defined first by family, then my parents’ circle of friends. Over the years there was a strong sense of community in our post-WWII suburban neighborhood. Eventually, friends became my community of choice as school became the focus of my time. Church was layered in there somewhere.
The word and idea of community is having a trendy run these days. Trying to identify true community might be akin to clarifying the line between friends and acquaintances. We commonly call almost anyone we have an ongoing relationship with a friend. I think it would be more accurate to realize most of us have many acquaintances and some friends. In a similar way we can call any group of people we have connections with a community — or better yet “our” community. I think our definition of community may be weak or we may be fooling ourselves in evaluation. Simply put, I question how many of us actually experience community on a level that changes and sustains us.
The challenge becomes deciding what makes a connected group of people something more, a community. Following is an attempt to identify how I understand, relate to and hopefully nurture community for others and myself.
It takes time to become (a) community.
The old realtor’s jag is that the three most important things are: “location, location, location.” In the late 70s and early 80s, my wife and I worked at a conservative Christian camp. In that setting we connected with others in their teens and twenties. We were all trying to gain some sense of becoming adults. The intensity of shared work and living together in a ministry setting resulted in life connections that moved deeper, quicker than they might have in another context. We eventually went on full-time staff with the camp. Others stayed around town for school or work. Some went away and returned. We have walked together through the 70s, 80s, 90s, aughts and now teens. Time and experiences have strengthened and deepened commitments, connections and understanding.
Communities are a crucible of strength for times of crises.
Life is messy and survival cries out for help. Because of a shared sense of getting through together with those we consider community, we have walked through life transitions, loss, failure and trials. Almost everybody experiences the random confusion of health crises, despair and death. At times we have little to offer each other except the sense that we are committed and we are present. A few years back my career went south. My communities (yes, I have more than one) rallied in the process and aftermath by offering active support and wisdom. Friends from the near opposite corner of the country kept touch each step of the way. It was full circle as I had helped them through a job crisis about five years before. Together with my local community I was supported to survive the mess and build a base for a new future.
Healthy communities are a strange mix of tight connections and openness to welcoming new people.
Back to the group that was shaped in the summer camp setting: even though our relationships began in a close, defined, shared experience, it is not a closed set. Friendships, growing families and marriage have brought others into the circle that did not share in the camp staff experience. What was originally a collection of young people with a small age span now includes three generations spanning more than eighty years. Community continues to be enriched by the ever-widening circle.
No laughter? No thanks.
The ability to laugh at life and oneself in a safe place is food for the soul — the background stories and unspoken things, a look, phrase or memory that communicates beyond words. Laughter that is shared in love is one of the greatest gifts of community. I meet regularly with a group of men. Our shared roots go back almost twenty years. We began when we were young leaders in local ministries. No matter how much we hate to admit it, we are now elders in almost any setting. We meet weekly to share life, talking about work and ministry, family, books, faith, sports, what’s happening around home and in the broader ministry world, movies, belief, hopes, dreams and struggles — and we laugh. Our shared history and common life experiences give us the ability to let go and realize that we may not be quite as important as we’d like to think. I think laughter has been a part of every gathering over the years. What sparks the laughing is rarely important. The fact that we let go together is very important.
We all need a place that supports risk-taking.
Having a circle of friends to share the process of looking squarely at doubt and questions is gold. Honesty and acceptance are crucial. If community is about deeper connections, it needs to allow dangerous exploration into the raw edges of faith and belief. Not everybody wants to be a part for these conversations. I am thankful for safe people and safe places where I have them.
Communities are not static.
Change happens. Individuals change and groups change. There are times I do not like the shifts, but I understand that no group can be static. Friends have moved out of deeper circles over the years. Some have made a clean break and others have done a gradual drift. Location, employment and family configurations are common factors in shifts. The reality is that we rarely know the reality and are left with our own sense of acceptance and forward movement.
You’ve got to feel the pain.
A community isn’t a community until everybody has had his or her feelings hurt and decided to stick it out. Real people do real things, like hurting each other. Without digging up all the dirt I am sure I have been on both sides, causing and receiving pain. Hopefully I am able to forgive and seek forgiveness as needed to enable greater life and community on the other side.
In other times and places the choice of community was virtually predetermined: who was nearby, end of discussion. I realize I have the privilege of choice in determining my community. With privilege comes responsibility. I know I need the others’ support, even when I don’t know it. I hope I am living up to the privilege by fully participating in the life of the communities that I share in.