Creating community

July 08, 2014

I was in Quebec for a week of vacation with my mother in early June, and while there, I met someone with this amazing gift to create community.

We were on a Road Scholar trip with 17 other people. Now, you and I know that you can have a shared experience with a group of people but that does not mean you are a community. At the end of the week, as we were leaving, I said to the program coordinator that not only did he organize a great trip, he made us feel like family, and I felt a connection to the people, the place, and that experience that endures beyond a week of vacation. He has, what Parker Palmer refers to in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, a capacity to create community.

The capacity to create community is Palmer’s fifth “habit of the heart,” the others being: 1) understanding that we are all in this together; 2) developing an appreciation of the value of “otherness;” 3) cultivating the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways; and 4) generating a sense of personal voice and agenda (all of which were topics of previous columns).

Palmer asserts that people cannot find personal voice and agency without the experience of community, which nurtures our sense of self and empowers us to become more. He says that it took a village to translate Rosa Parks’ act of personal integrity into social change. She was able to stay seated on that bus because of the community that had shaped her and that stood with her.

So what were the gifts of Jean-Pierre, the program coordinator in Quebec that helped to take 19 strangers and foster in them a sense of community? He certainly exuded hospitality. He called us by name from the first day. He smiled all the time. He served coffee and carried suitcases and poured water even when it wasn’t his job. He has an incredible sense of humor that was kind and gracious.

All those little things made us feel comfortable, but a few other things really made us feel like family and connected us a community.

For example, there’s a tradition of “house parties” in Quebec. People gather for a sort of jam session with whatever musical gifts they have. We were invited to a house party where we met Jean-Pierre’s friends and neighbors. We shared in song, laughter, and dancing. It was a communal experience.

And then another morning, we did one of those “get-to-know-you” activities. It was the kind of thing that you groan at when the facilitator tells you about it, but they work, which is why the facilitator cajoles you into being a good sport and participating. We learned interesting things about each other, celebrated each other’s gifts and uniqueness, and it was a bonding experience.

But the most significant thing that Jean-Pierre did was he opened his heart and family to us. He was not just the program coordinator. We learned his story. We learned about his work. We met his wife and daughter and were invited into their story as well. On one field trip, we went to his home town and we even met his uncle, the priest of the local church, and we saw the home he grew up in.

Now you might think: What kind of vacation is this? It was a charming one that had personal touches. We were being invited into someone’s home and life, and because of that, it became more than a trip; it was an experience of community. 

So I ponder: Are our congregations as intentional in welcoming new people? Do we help new people feel comfortable by doing the small things that show hospitality? Do we learn their names and stories? But even more, do we share our story so that they are not kept at a polite distance as guests just passing through but instead welcomed into the heart of our community? Do we create opportunities for laughter, music, and storytelling, where the old-timers and newcomers can connect and bond? It really can make a difference, and I learned that on a vacation to a place where I didn’t know the language or culture but met a person who knew how to help people discover a sense of belonging and home.

Ask me if I would go back…the greatest test of hospitality and community… and my answer is a resounding “yes!”

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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