On a particularly rainy day during vacation, my husband and I snagged some seats inside a local coffee shop/restaurant for lunch while we waited for the weather to break. We thought at first the place might be a pub, because the decor seemed characteristic and the back of the restaurant opened up into what seemed to be a small stage area for live trad music. When a group of three older men began fiddling with microphones and guitars, we assumed that’s what they intended to do, though we were surprised to hear live trad so early in the day.
To our surprise, though, the musicians weren’t playing trad music. Once they got everything settled and then pulled out a keyboard, they started up…a waltz. And my husband and I watched in mounting delight as a good two-thirds of the restaurant’s customers, the majority of them elderly married couples, went to the floor and started to dance.
I can’t tell you how sweet and wonderful it was to watch these folks, many of whom moved a little stiffly or came in wearing their farmer’s clothes, move across the dance floor with practiced ease. They were having such a good time! And because the floor wasn’t very big, the couples all took turns sitting out a song or two so everyone could have a go. They all knew each other; they laughed and talked and caught up together. We learned that this was a weekly event. “It’s a place,” the server told us, “where the community likes to gather, you know, for a bit of fun.”
This isn’t unusual in rural Ireland. My husband and I saw frequent ads for community events wherever we drove: hand-painted posters for group movie nights in small seaside towns, community-center-sponsored bingo nights and parties, fairs, festivals, you name it. It’s a needful thing: in a place where the winters especially can be long and dark, where farm and rural work is difficult and sometimes depressing, and where isolation can be a very real threat, community matters: it’s a place where people come together, find support, and feel that their presence matters.
Community is important and its effects profound. Scholars have noted that the opioid epidemic and the crippling struggles of much of Appalachia are, at least in small part, the product of the erosion of community in those areas. Mass shooters frequently target areas of community – particularly religious community – not just because of the numbers therein, but because the community itself represents a strength and presence they perceive as a threat. In many rural areas, communities band together to share strength and resources when the remoteness of the location means that wider help and assistance may not be immediately forthcoming.
And Christians are uniquely equipped for community. Over and over again, the Bible demands hospitality and generosity from believers: open your door, open your heart, open your wallet. Don’t let anyone be a stranger. Welcome all who come to your table. Be a place of welcome and invitation.
Christianity Today had an article recently discussing the ministry of Eugene Peterson, who recently went to be with the Lord. In the article, they quote his writing on the subject of community, and his struggles with it:
When I became a pastor, I didn’t like much about the complexities of community in general and of a holy community in particular. …[I preferred] the company of my sovereign self. But I soon found that my preferences were honored by neither Scripture nor Jesus.
The words struck a real chord with me. The truth is, I too have in my adulthood struggled to find a meaningful community inside the church. What I’ve found instead are get-togethers, activities, acquaintance-ships, and collegial but generally shallow ‘friendships’: networks, certainly, but with none of the depth or endurance of relationship I hoped for. And I’m not alone; I’ve heard similar struggles voiced by many other believers my age. Is it a consequence of the evolution of the modern church? The impact of technology on relationships? Our cultural insularity? I don’t know. But none of these groups or events much resemble the sort of community I feel that Scripture calls us to, or the longstanding, deeply-built communities I see outside the church from time to time.
I long for those. But for the first time, when I think about community, and the duty of holy community that we have as believers, I feel a spark of hope instead of frustration. The kind of community I dream about needn’t be beyond be; it can start with me. We can be our own community-builders, step by step, merely by opening our doors, our hearts, and offering up our time.
Because the alternative is unbearable. The world really does need community, the net of support and togetherness and belonging it provides. And if we can’t see that kind of community where we are, then that means the duty rests with us to create it, relationship by relationship, however we can.
I mean to give it a shot.