Mutual hospitality

By Leo Campos

What is the basis for any community to be considered a community at all? In my own family, for example, is it sufficient that we all inhabit the same house? As it is with different schedules (after school activities, church activities, personal pursuits, chores, and what not) the amount of time we spend together as a unit is very limited indeed. Even the ideal of sharing a meal is not always possible – sorry can’t stay for dinner gotta go to church for the 630p Healing Service. Sorry can’t stay – yoga class starting in 15 minutes. Sorry can’t stay, drumming lessons begin at 7 p.m. And so on.

But still we would consider ourselves a family or no more so than the vast majority of families these days. We have to fight for every scrap of time available. Without a doubt a community, be it a family or a larger organization is more than a collective of individuals. A community is a flexible and dynamic set of relationships. These relationships themselves are driven by the attitudes and behavior of its members, but they are themselves fed by and altered by the other attitudes and behaviors.

So what constitutes a family or a community? First of all a community is artificial. There is no such thing as “community,” it is a construct which delineates, more or less arbitrarily, a space for relationships. This much is obvious. Even the “nuclear family” so beloved a myth in America is artificial. Growing up in Brazil I tell you that my “nuclear family” was way larger than what Americans consider their nucleus. It is inconceivable for me that the nucleus of the family should stop at one generation. In our family we make concerted effort to make sure that grandparents are involved in the children’s lives. We also want to include cousins, aunts and friends into the mix.

Second thing to keep in mind is that what motivates individuals is not what affects communities. The community as an artificial phenomenon has a life of its own. There will be as varied reasons for members of a community to be together as there are members.

But we must be careful not to take this idea too far and end up thinking a community is some sort of Frankenstein’s Monster – an artificial being with a life of its own. We cannot either assume or give what are human characteristics to a non-human thing. For example, while it makes sense to say that a my cats have a family, it is dangerous to think that way because “family” is a human construct. Cats most certainly do not see their own associations with each other and with non-felines in that way. Anyone else here who has ever watched the Dog Whisperer show on TV knows what I am talking about. The same way a community (or a family) is not a creature: it is an abstract entity which “moves” and “behaves” responding to different forces than the creatures that make it.

Some questions which arise when I think of communities: what is it that holds a community together? How is interdependence achieved, fostered, cultivated?

Without good answers for these questions I am afraid we spend a lot of time worrying about things which are less important, things like numbers. How many conversations have I had or heard where the defining characteristic of a church was its size. Sure it is by far the easiest thing to measure: one head=one person. But study after study of mega-churches has shown that the quality, the depth, and the impact of the church on the individual is in no way related to the size of the church. I would probably venture to say that it is in small churches is where you find the true disciples – after all the 5 people that show up for a Wednesday night Healing Service really want to be there.

I have no particular secret advanced monastic technique to increase community. But I can tell you what we do to try and foster a communal environment. First, everyone rows. There cannot be (especially in small groups) any tourists. I remember some time ago a wise priest pointing to me a horrible truth about the church: there are no volunteers in church. It is true! Everyone who calls himself a Christian is a disciple – who is obligated by evangelical commands to roll up their sleeves and work. Volunteering is a secular thing, for those who are idle and searching for something meaningful to fill up the time between lunch with friends and bridge club later that night. So at our Community, from day one, we talk about everyone being responsible for the whole. Second, we throw away rules. I do not mean that anything goes, but rather we try to do away with regulated and regimented verse-and-response communications, and instead hope to foster a more tenuous, sometimes embarrassing, often funny, informal dialog. This allows everyone to talk in their own way, in their own voice. Finally, we are rabid defenders of each other’s individual and unique call. By destroying all cookie-cutters, we hope to emphasize to everyone that they are held in unique respect by all of us.

By keeping these three aspects in creative tension we have been able, so far, to maintain both a healthy interest in the global community as well as excitement about each individual’s call. Surely there must be a way to do so in the church as well?

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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