This post is adapted from a message shared January 15, 2023 at Islands Community Church on Bailey's Island, ME.
There are a few vital elements necessary for gathering and sustaining community – choice, practice, and the seed of awareness that instigates them — the seed of awareness of the sacred right in front of us.
Last month, at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine where I work, we had our first in-person retreat in two years. As 28 people came together for a weekend, we had opportunities to recognize our differences of belief, disposition, and upbringing and we celebrated our shared humanity and common commitment to nurturing the spiritual life in ourselves and each other. We paid attention to the evidence of the divine among us.
Our retreat theme was Beloved Community and, as we stepped toward one another, we had ample opportunity to nurture both the resilient and the fragile places in our community.
Beloved community is a term popularized by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It refers to a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate.
We are a long way from realizing Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community in our nation and in our world, but we can continue to raise up the vision as an aspiration and a promise… and we can actively strive to cultivate the beloved community in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and here within this church.
At the ChIME retreat, in service to the vision of living in beloved community, there were tears and laughter, whispered conversations and raucous conversations, meals and stories shared, sunrise meditations and sunset walks, messes made and messes cleaned up.
Ultimately, we all left the weekend exhausted and clear that we had only just begun. Community requires ongoing effort and commitment. It requires choosing to step toward one another again and again.
adrienne marie brown describes community this way:
“Community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong… not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…to heal. To recover. Community feels responsible to each other. Community is a choice. More precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.”
To this definition, I would add that community is woven one intentional relationship at a time, with attention and care. And we each all belong to several or many communities throughout our lives. Each of your communities may overlap in many ways, or they may only overlap in one place – in you.
For me, a sense of community is deeply personal — more a felt sense of being connected than a logistical or practical one — and that sense of community extends beyond the human to all the beings and forces that sustain and encourage me.
Last summer, Thomas and I took a hike in the White Mountains. The weather was beautiful, trails were dry, and bugs had not yet hatched at those elevations. Hiking conditions were perfect for just giving myself to the scenery and becoming one with the forest. After a busy spring tending to the needs of our family, and our work families, I was craving this re-connection to the wider web of life.
But the trails were rocky and seemed to be either straight up or down. I was constantly looking at my feet or looking around for rocks or trees to help me pull myself up or lower myself down. My knees ached and the amount of attention required by the technical trail kept me in my head and isolated from the ecosystem that I longed to connect with.
On the third day, on a long descent, I reached out to steady myself as I stepped off a tall rock. The bark of the birch tree was smooth and, as I reached out to it, it seemed to be reaching out to me. Growing as it did alongside that trail, it had likely been steadying hikers for decades – and would continue to. It accepted me in my vulnerability, and I recognized its strength and generosity… This encounter was an invitation to reciprocity. I had been reaching out to helper trees and rocks for the entire trip but I had not been paying attention. They had been offering me their groundedness. The least I could do was offer them my attention and gratitude.
Now I was on high alert. Each time I reached out for support from a trailside tree or rock, I acknowledged its integrity and gave thanks for its presence. My vulnerability and physical needs suddenly became an opportunity to recognize myself in relationship with dozens of beings along the way. Each time I reached out, I was received. One relationship at a time, I was feeling my way back into awareness, back into community.
Charles Eisenstein offers, “community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs.”
Today, I invite you to consider the awareness, choices, and practices at play in your own experience of community.
Where do you notice divinity? To whom or what do you extend welcome? From whom or what do you receive welcome? How do your personal communities of belonging and responsibility resonate with Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community?
I will close with a poem by Joy Harjo that reminds me that I am always intimately connected within a vast and timeless beloved community. Just like you.
Remember the sky that you were born under,
Joy Harjo, Remember
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.