Can you create community?
“Community will start again when people begin to do necessary things for each other again.” – Wendell Berry (Morris Allen Grubbs, ed. Conversations with Wendell Berry, 75).
I’ve been reflecting on what seems like an innocuous little quote. Institutions like churches and universities spend a great deal of money in the name of “creating community.” Initiatives and programs are started and funded with the purpose of bringing into being that utopian idea of “community.” Berry’s simply (and profound) observation undermines what is often an overly consumerist approach to creating community.
1. Community is not a thing to be created; it is shared activity. Community occurs when we give our shared attention and effort to something outside of ourselves.
2. Community arises most deeply in shared “necessary things.” Healthy community implies that we rely upon our neighbors. It’s almost impossible to really rely on someone in the context of leisure or luxury. This isn’t to say that leisure or luxury are always bad only that they are limited and, of course, to some extent (especially luxury) they are optional.
3. Community impllies reciprocity or mutuality. We need and are needed. Community cannot be uni-directional.
These values bring to mind my recent trip to Quarryville, PA. At the 2000 census the population of Quarrville was 1,994 (it occupies 1.3 sq miles of land). That means that the borough of Quarryville is about the same size as InterVarsity as a national movement and less than half the size of the university where I do collegiate ministry.
If you spend much time around the town, you’ll notice that agriculture is the primary means of sustaining a family. There are lots of farm-owners and other farmworkers around. There seem to be some dairy herds as well as land that’s producing crops.
You get the sense that there is a great degree of community in that place. It’s not the sentimental sort of community that I often fall prey to. Rather, it’s a robust form of community that for a suburban person might even feel at times gossipy, exclusive, or even provincial. However, it is real community marked principally by what Berry notes above: doing necessary things for one another.
We long to find community, but our modern consumer values mitigate against it. Consumerism makes community difficult because we come to believe that we ought to be able to buy our way out of needing other people (by purchasing a tool, hiring a handman, etc). It makes community feel burdensome. It also belittles necessary things. Who wants to spend their lives doing chores? I certainly do not, but it is entirely possible that our aversion to things mundane is detrmental to the development of our souls in a Godward direction. After all–spiritual formation is, as Eugene Peterson has written, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Mile 26 of a marathon might be a high, but most of the preceding 25 are fairly gruelling (or so I imagine).
We desire nothing so much as “to be named and placed” (Craig Goodwin, Year of Plenty, 80). And there’s no better way to experience this than to get down and dirty and do some necessary things, together.