Community Requires Sitting

...for a very long time.


I wrote Tuesday that community takes a lot of mediocre and mundane interaction. Maybe it goes without saying, but for that to happen, you have to stay in the same place.

As we sipped our first cups of java at the new Electric Brew location on Tuesday, my friend Allen told me about the time he met Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Allen curled a smile as he recalled how she chewed out his friend who asked questions about community, "You people!" she shouted, pounding her fist on the table, "You scoot all over the country 'trying to find community.' Why don't you just stay somewhere!"

First of all, it is an elite group of people who can claim to have been chewed out by Dorothy Day.

Second, I think she's absolutely right.

I know because from age 18 to 23 I moved from Albany, Oregon to Cochabamba, Bolivia to Sweet Home, Oregon back to Albany then to Rosedale, Ohio, spent a summer in Virginia, and another summer in Oregon then again to Ohio to travel all over the country doing promotional work for a college before finally landing here in Goshen, Indiana. Just as I was getting ready to move to Baltimore (I was accepted to the University of Baltimore) I crashed, I couldn't do it anymore. I was beginning to find community in Goshen again and couldn't let that go.

It may be obvious that state hopping isn't conducive to community, but a more localized version of my story is all too common. We swap jobs, churches, responsibilities, small groups, friendships, and favorite restaurants like they're going out of style.

Wendell Berry, Kentucky native and writer, wrote a book called Jayber Crow (one of my favorites), which is in one sense and exploration of the death of the communal society in America. To oversimplify, from what I gathered, he blames it on interstate highways; the ability to find yourself three states over in the amount of time it used to take many people to get to the next town exponentially grew the possibilities for work and entertainment. To reduce it further, there is simply more things to do and people to see than ever before.

Opportunity kills community.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

A friend (who took the above photo) just got back from a week of in New York where he spent the greater part of a couple days wandering the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island. What he found was remarkable. As he moved from one block to the next, there were very clear demographic changes. Low income occupied the block next to hipsters who held the next two blocks–white collar, Jewish, Vietnamese, and high end artists after that. At one point he said there were middle class white 20-somethings pushing strollers on one side of the street and elderly black women shuffling on the other. Not that I think we should partition ourselves off by race or occupation, but in the city of extremes and endless opportunity, entire blocks of people have separated into hyper-community.

Community finds a way.

But it's not possible without limitations. Two people deciding randomly from endless opportunity will rarely connect. In order to build community, you have to learn to say no, to limit the number of places you go, how often you move, even the number of people you spend time with (which maxes out at 150 by the way. It's called the Dunbar number).

So here are some suggestions.

  • Stay in the same place for more than 5 years at a time, it takes that long to really get plugged in.
  • Frequent small businesses (even if it does cost more money, you are paying for community and quality) that are closer to where you live.
  • Live close to your work, play, and worship. Driving 30 minutes to work, 30 minutes to friends, and 30 minutes to church, is exactly the sort of thing that makes solid community more difficult. It may mean you have to switch jobs, or move, or switch church communities. It may also mean that you have to leave something good behind in one of those categories, which is your call as to which one that is.
  • Pick less extras, and do them well. This one is most definitely for me. The more things I try to do, the more stretched my community becomes, and the more I end up just 'doing things' rather than experience life with others, which seems to be the thing we crave the most in life.
  • Fight for it. We live in what is called an associational society, which means that most of the people you interact with on a daily basis, your bank teller, your grocer, the guy at the Verizon store, are people that you don't know and have probably never met before (or don't remember meeting).If you aren't digging for community, you probably don't have very much of it.