One day when we first moved to a new home far from Anchorage, my husband went shopping for an item for the house. The purchase was bulkier than he anticipated and he was having a hard time fitting it in the trunk.
Next to him in the parking lot of the big box store, a woman was placing her items in a van with her kids.
Noting my husband’s struggle, she said, “If you don’t live too far from my house, I’d be happy to put that in the back of the van and follow you home.”
Ultimately, the offer was unnecessary and the item was tied into the trunk.
However, for those of us who grew up in the small-town Midwest, or lived in places like Alaska where people generally have a “we’re in this together” attitude, it was a generous but not surprising offer from a stranger with an expansive view of community.
Where I grew up, small family farms were the rule. If a family was in trouble — serious illness at harvest time, perhaps — the community would rally. Farmers quickly mobilized to get the corn picked or the hay bailed.
Nobody cooked like farm ladies, and a death in the family meant enormous quantities of food would immediately appear. I remember a neighbor standing over an ironing board in our kitchen for hours getting all the laundry caught up in the days following my dad’s death. She just showed up and did it.
These are examples of community, and community is a wonderful gift.
Martin Luther King, Jr., often spoke of the “beloved community.” He didn’t invent the phrase, but he imbued it with deep meaning. He envisioned a society where people were committed to justice, peace, tolerance, love. He called us to create such a community in our own lives even though achieving it in the world may take time. We are called to create such a community within our parishes and faith-sharing groups.
Dr. King’s beliefs were influenced in part by Gandhi, but his chief inspiration came from Jesus. Like much of Jesus’ teaching, his instruction on community stretches our preconceived notions.
When the traveler is stricken along the road and left for dead by bandits, for example, Jesus very pointedly explains that it was a Samaritan — a stranger, an “other” — who stopped and proved to be his neighbor. He challenged us to expand our view of community.
In the examples I cited, the people offering help did so within relatively safe boundaries, a tight-knit community. This does not detract from their generosity. The old axiom, “charity begins at home” rings true. It would be a shame if we spent our time rallying for good causes on the national scene and ignored the elderly, lonely woman who lives next door.
Yet we are called to move beyond our narrow view of who deserves our help and who actually should share in our community. To fully live into Jesus’ vision — and Dr. King’s — we need to strive to build our faith groups, our parishes, into strong communities and then make sure they reach out beyond their borders to a wider world.
Jack Jezreel of JustFaith Ministries has a phrase I like — he suggests we “love wide.”
He adds: “The spiritual logic of a community of faith is that they can live a smaller but living version of what they seek for the larger world.” That’s our challenge.
The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.