I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the subject of community lately. The thoughts have been stimulated by life decisions I’ve had as of late, by conversations overheard and conversations with friends, books I’ve been reading, and observations of the world around me. Now that I have begun to think about it, I see references to community everywhere.
As some are aware, I had the opportunity to volunteer in Kenya for three months this summer. One of the (many) reasons for deciding against going was because of the community I am finally feeling a part of here and my reluctance to break away from that right now. After a number of years of transient life, I seem to be craving an integral part in a healthy land-based community.
What is it about community that compels us and draws us in? Over and over when I was living and working on the Pacific Grace we were confronted with trainees returning year after year to the program. One of the interesting things we found is that it was the community which drew them: crew changes on a regular basis, the boat itself isn’t enough of a draw (it is a hard life on the boat for many trainees – up early in the morning, doing dishes, no showers, no [shock, horror] Facebook…), but the consistent thread is the welcoming community rooted firmly in God. It is this community which draws trainees back year after year and gives then a sense of being loved and known.
This type of community, that which welcomes everyone regardless of physical or mental weakness and ascribes worth and value to each human, is the premise of Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human which I just finished re-reading. If you haven’t gone out and read it yet, you should. [Aside: There have been two great posts on the blog Faith and Theology in the last week or so involving Vanier’s L’Arche communities here and here.]
Two weekends ago, I visited a good friend in Vancouver. We first met ten years ago in high school when her family moved to town for her mother to take up a teaching position at our school. As principal, Dad invited their family over for a bbq one evening and, as the daughter the same age as the new family’s daughter, I took her on a long bike ride through the coulees. She likes to relate this story and tell everyone that I tried to kill her. Not so. We have kept in touch, some times better than others, over the last decade. When she was tree planting up in northern BC, she would stay with us on days off. When I moved to Victoria I became friends with her best friend, not knowing they were friends. Somehow (and, I think, for good reason), life has kept us connected. Both of us have had a number of major life experiences in the last few years. Mine involved living in intense community on the boat for a period of time and then finding myself on shore without it and craving it. Hers involved a campervan pilgrimage around the east coast seeking to understand how others do community and interact with society around them. In the end we have both settled in BC in various types of communities. I had the privilege to step into hers for 24hrs.
The HOB is a house of five girls living in East Vancouver. They have a fantastic community house in which the care they have for each other is genuinely evident. I began to journal my thoughts on community while I was with them. They have community meals weekly and spend time praying with and for each other as well as holding each other accountable. Entering their community house, I immediately felt relaxed and welcomed, as though I had known all of the girls for years. (And they put me to work in the morning making pancakes as though I had known them for years…) It was a refreshing feeling and the resulting 24hrs was the precise downtime and recharge that I needed. All of our living spaces should be like that.
On a long public transit ride home two weeks ago, I was reading Jean Vanier while eavesdropping on a conversation going on between two people on the other side of the bus. The conversation began with them finding out why the other was on the long bus ride from downtown Vancouver out to the ferry. The guy was describing to the girl that he had come over to Vancouver for the weekend to meet with a Swami who was in town. He continued to tell the girl about some of his experiences with the Swami and yoga and life pertaining to the two. One thing they discussed was a farm he had spent time at where 18-30 year olds can go to spend time within an ” intentional community” – his phrase. After my weekend in Vancouver, this phrase made me perk up and listen all the more intently. This community he was so enthusiastic about was a Buddhist community but the phrasing he used and the ideas he was sharing about could have come out of the mouth of any Christian. It struck me, listening to them talk and get excited about that kind of lifestyle, that yearning for community is not restricted to any one faith or national group. Christians do not have a corner on the community market. After all, isn’t it this community aspect that draws people towards cults in the first place?
It seems that this desire for community is hardwired into us. It is, after all, how we have lived for thousands of years. It is the model we see in the life of Jesus and that of the early church (see, for example, Acts where the believes all live together and take care of each other). It strikes me, therefore, that this is an opportunity for us as Christians to excel and meet a real and expressed need in the world around us. People desire community. We have in our possession the ultimate model of what healthy community looks like so why are we not more front-and-centre in providing it? What an opportunity it could be to show the world that the teachings of Jesus actually work.
It also leads me to wonder at why, if so many seem so hungry for genuine, intentional community, are we not living like that? Are we so caught up in our Western way of life that we cannot break out of it into something we all yearn for? Have we suppressed our desire for so long that we no longer recognize it? It is entrenched; we are trapped in a cycle we cannot get out of and everyone is so caught that no one wants to make the first move. Or, we are so individualistic that we don’t even know anymore if anyone else thinks like us.
As usual, I have more thoughts and questions than answers on the subject. However, I do believe that Christians and the church can and should lead the way in the example of what real community looks like. By creating places of community that are open and welcoming to all, we not only provide the solution to a need the world has expressed, but we follow the life and model of Jesus, the one we are called to exemplify.