I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. There are many notions about community. We may define our various communities by our neighborhoods, school communities, churches. Within the church, there are often small groups, which we often call our community groups. My friend Heidi is a part of the rowing community, just as our family is part of the local soccer community. What does it mean to be a part of community?
Belonging. Shared interest. Unity.
I love belonging to the Oaks Academy community. The school has the unique mission of reconciliation between people of various cultural, racial and economic statuses. Not everyone at this inner city school cares about reconciliation, but when they enroll their children, they certainly understand that this is an important element to the school’s foundation.
I do care about reconciliation and that is one of the reasons why I love the Oaks community. It is a place filled with people I love and who love me back. I am cared for and I care for the people there. It’s a place where teachers and other families support my children and help them to grow intellectually and spiritually. If I screw up or my children make mistakes, we still belong. No one shuns or shames us. It is truly a beautiful place of acceptance. Not perfect, by any means, but beautiful nonetheless.
I feel secure at the Oaks. I feel at home there, too. Not just inside the building walls, but with the many friends I have made over the years. The teachers and other parents know me. They know our family. Being known provides a sense of security.
What hurts my heart is when I see or hear of communities that for one reason or another wound the people within their circle. When people no longer feel safe or secure in their community, it can break down the unity as quickly as a tornado tears a house apart on its way through town.
This is particularly troubling for me when I hear it happening in churches. Of all places, you would think the church would be the safest. Often it is the least secure place for people. Unfortunately, I have seen people who share their brokenness in the hopes of support and acceptance, only to be brought under fire and in some cases even expelled from the church. I know there are circumstances where a person may be asked to leave a community because they may be harming the overall purpose or unity of a group. Those are not the people I am talking about.
For instance, let’s say I was a drug addict. I come to my church group and admit I had a drug problem and that I want help. My community group has a few options here. They can embrace me and tell me that they love me anyway. They can help find a place to send me to rehab. They can call me periodically and tell me they love me even if they don’t agree with what I am doing. Or they can stay silent, paralyzed by what I have told them because they do not know how to handle it. Or worse yet, they can tell me to leave the group until I clean up my act.
Now let’s say they find out I’m a drug addict but I don’t want help. My group has all the same options as the above, and perhaps setting some boundaries for me to follow to force my hand at getting help. That may be helpful. I suppose it depends how it’s handled. But my point is that so often, what happens in the church is that we don’t know how to act in the midst of the battles in other people’s lives. So we stay silent. Or we turn to our religious rules and kick the sinner out of the community, citing whatever legalistic principle fits the situation.
How is this helpful? How does this perpetuate love and acceptance. I’m not talking about accepting behaviors. I’m talking about accepting people. Using our communities as places to love someone so much that they are motivated to seek help perhaps, or feel safe in sharing their pain and heartaches with one another. When this happens, when we are truly in a community, faith-based or not, and we can open our lives to one another, imperfections and all, we are like a light in the darkness.
Today I heard of two men who had committed suicide. I have felt the type of darkness where I have not wanted to live before. The type that is so oppressive that I do not want to go another minute with the pain of my circumstances. But because I have a community that I can trust, I was able to share this burden with a few friends. I cannot express the enormity of blessings I experienced when one friend came to my home to take care of the household chores that I simply couldn’t do. I literally laid in my bed while she sat down the hall, doing my laundry. And the other friend, who came over and crawled into bed with me and stroked my head while I cried. And the other friends who came to gather my children and take care of them when I was unable to do the simplest things. I have felt the deep, black darkness. But I believe that because I was willing to tell them about my pain, I was able to receive the love they poured into my life and my family’s life.
These people couldn’t fix my problem, but they could carry me and hold me in the midst of it. They didn’t try to snap me out of my moods or force me to heal any faster than I had to. They were there. They were just there doing what they do. Loving me in all the various ways they knew how. And it was beautiful. And eventually, I got out of bed and I grew stronger and I am now able to love others in the way God has created me to love.
So I suppose I’m on a soapbox today because I’m so sad by the way we fall short of caring for those with whom we are in community. I just returned home from the U2 concert in Atlanta. It was an incredible night. I was able to share it with two of the moms from the Oaks Academy. I never would have known these two beautiful women if it weren’t for the school bringing us together. For 12 hours we sat in the car traveling from Indiana to Georgia (hours of which were searching for a parking space!) and although there were three of us, we were a small community within a community. We shared a lot about our lives in those twelve hours and I am extremely blessed to have heard about their lives. What makes them excited. What pisses them off. What makes them laugh. And what makes their hearts break. Unfortunately, a lot of the heartaches came from the wounds they have experienced with broken community.
There’s something wrong with that picture. As I think about ways that I have contributed to breaking unity within a community, I am filled with sorrow. I hope that I will continue to recognize when my motives are self-centered rather than global, and that I can live the words of this popular song by — of course, U2:
You got to do what you should
With each other
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other