Coming Back to ‘Community’

The calendar turns past Labor Day, and with it our attempts to extend the reach of summer: the last good-weather chance to dip the canoe in the Fox River, or to lie on the beaches close to Saugatuck. The familiar rhythms of the school year are on the cusp. And like parents who’ve prepared their charges by shopping for togs and three-ring binders, for the past few weeks the staff and lay leaders at TUC have been preparing for the new church “year.”
The overtures are indeed underway. Our Board, comprised of five members and chaired by incoming President Allen Matthews, already gathered in Oak Park for a retreat a few weeks ago to set goals through the 2012 Annual Meeting, and the roster of major congregational activities has been largely set. The staff also met for its retreat in Evanston to get clear on points of emphasis and to continue planning for our Sunday morning programs.
There’s usually time to express and hear a range of opinions, and bloviating, at retreats. We were mercifully free of either at each meeting. But what struck me was the repetition of the phrase, “community,” among the both board and the staff. It seems something like a trend, for I’ve heard this frequently in the past few years at Third Church, notably in the “pulpit editorials” from our newer members last winter.
And the benefits of “community” have also surfaced in other recent conversations. At a high school reunion in August, a friend bemoaned a missed opportunity to join a local UU congregation. She felt it would’ve given her racially and religiously-mixed family a chance to experience a much-needed sense of “community” in an otherwise homogenous, small New England town. “And my kids,” she added with a sigh, “really needed that kind of support when they were growing up.”
General understandings of “community” come to mind: a group of people with shared values and experiences, one that offers the possibility of forming smaller groups marked by even closer bonds. TUC, like other congregations, offers these: we have the UU small group ministries known as “Chalice Circles,” as well various overlapping and informal collections of long-time friends.
Religious institutions often give much in the way of support of its members and the reinforcement of personal identity. I think it’s why Third tends to matter so much to its members. But we exist not just for ourselves. It’s to extend this sense of belonging to others.
It’s long been argued that churches are not closed social groups. We provide comfort and care to our members, yes, but we also aim to make a difference in the world beyond our walls. We keep our doors open to welcome newcomers, and in particular the stranger, so that our circle of empathy can be expanded. We offer scholarships to college-bound Austin kids, built a community garden and host a Head Start center because they tend first toward the transformation of our corner of the world, and then, as a result, our members can feel better about themselves. If we join our friends, other allies and residents in Austin in acts of local empowerment, TUC is enriched and our sense of “community” is legitimately deepened.
The great African-American theologian Howard Thurman once wrote, “Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers.” Our members come back, and newcomers join TUC again and again because of our sense of “community”–a community that moves beyond itself through service toward others.
See you in church on Opening Sunday and throughout the year, where we’ll lift up this spirit through our “Celebrations of Life.” And if you want to hear more on this topic, come to the September 18th program–it’ll be the focus on the sermon.

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2 responses to “Coming Back to ‘Community’

  1. eleano lukazewski

    From a TUC old timer -on the periphery _40 miles in the Fox Valley- I really
    appreciate the return of the TUC blogs. Connected once again .Thank you.

  2. It is good to see “community” recognized as a necessary “glue” to unite a religious congregation. Too many people are drawn into the mistake of American fundamentalism, of making “belief” the central element. The word “religion” derives from “ligare,” or “binding,” and our religion is to bind us together. The Anglican Communion recognizes the importance of community in offering a prayer book in which those who use it are made a community by doing so; the word “common” in reference to “The Book of Common Prayer” means “communal” in today’s usage of language.

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