Opinion: It starts with community
Written by Marja Coons-Torn
November 23, 2009

In the beginning of his new book, "Community: The Structure of Belonging," Peter Block writes, "The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole."

What intrigues me is that this is the second time Block has taken a core concept of our faith and carried it into the world of training, development and consulting. His earlier book was called "Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest." Isn't it interesting that sometimes the wider culture gives greater value than we do to concepts that have traditionally belonged to the Church? Take "community."

Welcoming the stranger - we call it radical hospitality, Block calls it the community of belonging - is what we've been trying to be about for half a decade. There are hospitality and vitality programs aimed at building community popping up all over the United Church of Christ. We have one in our Conference, but I've been intrigued with the variations and permutations that I've seen, read or heard about in other Conferences as well.

It may take five or ten or even twenty years to really see the results of all of these efforts, but some of our churches are excited and energized for the first time in a very long time.

Vitality and hospitality are about building inclusive community - a place to connect. Jesus was about making community with God and with other human beings. I could make a pretty good case for community building being the essence of the gospel message.

We affirm that "whoever you are, wherever you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." You're welcome, yes, and you are invited to belong to our community. To belong is to go deeper into community than just being welcome. And community is about more than proximity. Block has it right; it's about connectedness and caring for the whole.

In the setting in which I serve, and throughout the United Church of Christ, we build community within our communities. I just saw a report form a new church planter that said sixty-one non-members came to sit down at the dinner table with those who already belong. But we build community beyond our communities as well.

Jim Fowler, one of our active disaster response volunteers, just led our 15th mission trip from the Penn. Central Conference. On his return, he talked about what a joy it is to finally see some progress in rebuilding in the area around Beecher Memorial UCC (New Orleans,) our partners in mission. We're also building community around the world through partnerships and mutual prayer in places like Germany and Namibia.

As we build community we tell the story of the church. To tell the story of the church we need to tell our faith stories to each other and to those who are now strangers but may become fellow travelers, members of our community.

I once met with a new member of the congregation I was serving - a young man who grew up in a pretty different kind of congregation than the one he had just joined. He came in with a friend, a young woman, because I think even after he joined he wasn't sure what kind of reception he was really going to get from me or from the congregation.

He was pretty different from most of our members, but he needed and wanted a community that could accept him the way he was. At various times this young man was homeless, in the hospital or crashing with friends. But the church was his "touch point" - the place that remained stable and welcoming even as he faced all of the challenges that life threw his way.

His is just one story of how we connect individuals into community, in Christ. The possibilities are endless. Thank you, Peter Block, for reminded me that we are all about transforming isolation and self-interest into connectedness and caring.


The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn is Conference Minister of the UCC's Penn Central Conference.
 

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