Tuesday, 28 April 2009

What is Community and How do we do it?


Organised by CULTIVATE.IE

The Importance of Community in Uncertain Times - 28th April 2009 - Address given at Convergence event in Cloughjordan by Stephen Neill

I heard a story recently about a man who was having a row with his wife and in the course of that row in frustration he slammed his fist down on a glass table and cut himself on the arm. He was bleeding steadily and so his wife wrapped his arm up in a towel and said he should to go to hospital. So she put him in the car, and made him drive himself. The row wasn’t over!

When he arrived at the hospital entrance there were two doors marked “Male” and “Female” – He went through the male door. He was then faced by two more doors marked “Life threatening” & “Non-life threatening”. As tempted as he was he went through non-life threatening. He was then faced by two more doors marked “Upper body” and “lower body” It all depended on where he held his arm but he went through the upper body door. This led to two more doors marked “Internal injury” or “External injury”. He chose external. The other side of this door were two more doors marked “Bleeding” and “Not bleeding”. So long has passed by now that his arm had actually stopped bleeding so he went through the not bleeding door. This door came out into the hospital car park, so he got into his car and drove home. When he got home his wife was there waiting for him, and she asked how he got on. “Oh” he replied “I didn’t actually get to see anyone but boy were they organised!”

It is a funny story, but the more I think about it, the more and more I wonder if that story is a description of how many communities operate today: Well organised but in reality of no help to the real needs of people, and so people pass through unfulfilled and unsatisfied having had no real or meaningful encounter with the so called community.

I tell that story because I wonder are we taking for granted that we know what real community is like? Before we even look at its importance we have to be clear what it is, this thing we call ‘Community’.

Coming from a Christian perspective as I inevitably do, I am increasingly conscious that communities of faith such as my own have not always been a good example in modeling community. Ironically, following in the footsteps of one who spent his earthly life breaking down barriers, defying convention, welcoming the marginalized and meeting the real needs of people, we have historically tended to build walls around our faith communities, well defined boundaries, excluding rather than including. We have been wedded to convention and we have often neglected the need for societal renewal which is every bit as important in the Gospel as personal transformation. We haven’t been good at building community! That is certainly changing but there is still an inertia which diverts much needed energy from the task at hand. There is today a growing acceptance that the message of the Gospel is deeply political as well as spiritual and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

A church which saw this life as merely a prelude to the afterlife was inclined to neglect societal injustice and become increasingly disengaged and inward looking in its focus – This despite Jesus’ constant emphasis on themes of justice and compassion! For example: When Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth he chose to read this passage from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

There were those who never lost sight of this vision and one in particular who has always impressed me was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple who held this high office during the 2nd World war – His most famous statement is this: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

I would want to say tonight that while there is nothing wrong with an organization or society built around the needs of its members,that this alone doesn’t make for healthy community. Healthy community is found where there is an acceptance of diversity and openness to those on the margins and even beyond. In a healthy community the door is at least ajar if not wide open. I think this is especially but not exclusively true in these uncertain times. All the things that we took for granted are being questioned, and I am not just talking about blue chip stocks and bank shares but also and more fundamentally our whole value system, the truths we built our lives on!

Something needs to change and as a contemporary American politician who I admire greatly has pointed out “the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result” (Barack Obama)
These are challenging times and we need new ideas – and to foster those new ideas we need true community which can allow people of different perspectives and different faith and belief systems to work together for the greater good. We need a bigger picture of what our roles and responsibilities are in the world.

And we are being given plenty of hints – The Earth itself is screaming at us to take notice of what is happening to this wonderful planet, largely because we don’t behave as people in true community but rather as distinct individuals and sectional interest groups. We take what we want regardless of its affect on others and the whole of Creation. I think sometimes we do this because we don’t believe there is any other way!

I experienced something this year which will for ever remain with me and convinces me that there is always another way, that there are always new possibilities when we enlarge our vision of Community. The moment that really hit home for me was on a journey from New York to Washington last January 19th by Amtrak. I was part of a group attending Barack Obama’s Inauguration. The train was full to overflowing with people of every background and ethnicity, and a very large number were African American. We sang and laughed and cried every inch of that journey to Washington, united in joy and relief, in wonder and in awe of what about to happen because someone dared to dream that our diversity could be the key to building true and sustainable community.

Our diversity is our wealth – It is the key to building community that will not only help us survive but also thrive. We must dream bigger dreams and expect the unexpected.


Grannymar said...

We must dream bigger dreams, positive dreams and be open to change!

Póló said...