Art of Community

Recently I read something that contained the phrase, “the art of community.”  I have no idea what it was that I was reading and I don’t remember anything about the context of the phrase nor any more points that were made in developing the idea.  So I am hoping I am not committing plagiarism!  I am using a phrase and would give credit if I had a clue where I read it. 
I have had an ongoing interest in community for decades now.  Maybe it has been a lifetime, but I probably did not have the language for it when I was a kid.  Times were different when I was a kid.  In those days people went to church because many believed, I am sure.  But I am also sure folks went because it was the socially accepted thing to do.  In those days there was far less diversity in my part of the world---or at least, I was unaware of the diversity.  Of course, in a rural Indiana setting in the mid-20th century, there really was less diversity.
I am sure the idea of community was important even then, but I don’t remember that terminology.  People simply talked about “going to church” or “to meeting” in my case as a Quaker.  Church was more than the Sunday morning service.  Church was an attitude and a way of life.  In my language today church was the community, which was part of you even when you were by yourself.  With community, I never felt alone even when I was actually by myself.  For the most part I appreciated it.
I carried that desire for community on into my educational experience and it has lasted even to this day.  In fact I have a couple lines in the syllabus for every class I teach that expresses my hope that throughout the semester the class might become a community.  In the beginning I never try to define it for students.  And I tell them I cannot do it alone.  But it almost always happens.  And the process fascinates me.  I am convinced now that I invite them into the process of becoming artists of community.  I now have a new phrase to describe the process.
I would like to reflect some on that process of community formation---the art of community.  There are many elements to it, but I will identify three of them.  The first thing the art of community requires is respect.  Authentic community is not possible without mutual respect among the members.  This does not mean everyone is equal.  Clearly, in most communities there is inequality when it comes to abilities, development, etc.  But there can be mutual respect. 

Because I have a Ph.D. does not mean I hold everyone who does not have a doctoral degree in some disdain.  Having a Ph.D. does not mean I am better---or even smarter---than someone else.  My daughter is a M.D., so does that trump a Ph.D?  Just because she can prescribe pills and I can’t, does not make her better than I am.  Respect is for the person, not for the degree.  I applaud her for her abilities and tenacity to finish medical school, residency and all that.  But I respect her for the person she is.  And so it is with everyone in a community.

The second element of community is to learn the art of caring.  Caring is not something to prescribe like the medicine my daughter can prescribe.  Caring is heart work.  It is not always logical nor rational.  Typically caring for someone is not a matter of education nor even talent.  In fact I doubt there is any correlation between amount of education and the capacity for caring.  The question here really does have to do with the heart and not the brain!  Caring is one of the ways that communities balance the diversity and disparities. 

The last element involved in the art of community is forgiveness.  I am convinced that community development requires sufficient engagement and, even, intimacy that mistakes and failures inevitably will occur.  People will blow it.  People will get tired, mad, etc.  Surely there will be times when I have to confess and be sorry for what I say or do.  Without forgiveness, all communities will unravel.  Communities are not utopian.  While I am happy to think spiritual communities intimate heaven, they are not heavenly.

Forgiveness is the way communities go forward when problems threaten to derail the best of intentions.  Forgiveness is not saying, “Forget it.”  Usually forgetting it is not possible.  Forgiveness is how we recognize that even though we can’t forget it, we are not going to get stuck in the moment of failure.  Forgiveness is the hope of failure.  Without forgiveness, there is not hope.  There is only the reality of failure---the victory of the problem.

I am sure there are more elements in the art of community.  But surely there are these three: respect, caring and forgiveness.  They are the artistic tools of community formation and nurture.  We can all be artists of community.

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