Foundations of Community | November 28, 2021 by Dr. Kathryn Benton
As water raining on a mountain-ridge runs down the rocks on all sides,
so the [person] who only sees variety of things
runs after them on all sides.
But as pure water raining on pure water becomes one and the same,
so becomes the soul of the [one] who knows.
- Katha Upanishad
Seeing only variety can make us seem like we are just chasing after streams running down all sides of the mountain. I love this image, because it is exactly how I sometimes feel…trying to reign in all the different aspects of life. In my quest to make sense out of my life, I tend to dissipate my energy and then never really come to understand what I am trying to understand. I rarely come to the place where I know oneness…where I know that we are all one. But once in a while I get glimpses of this oneness, so I know it exists.
I had such an opportunity this past week when I spoke with a student who is a senior at Principia College. She is writing her Capstone on Dr. and Mrs. Thurman’s trip to India and the ensuing development of The Church For the Fellowship of All Peoples. She wanted to hear about what the church was like today. Her intelligent and perceptive questions forced me to gather up all those streams and report on the essence of the “water” of our current church…what we believe in…what makes us “interfaith”…what are services like today and what makes them relevant in our times. She wanted to know how meaningful religious experiences are created in an interracial, interdenominational setting. It was, at times, difficult to answer her questions, but the experience led me to some conclusions about our community.
One thing I realized is how important our Zoom meeting has become! Although this was started out of a necessity for our community to connect, it has become so much more. It has broadened the significance and depth of our community through the accessibility to others…unknown sisters and brothers beyond our boundaries. These meetings are evidence of our commitment to inclusivity…even to the point of including people who are not able to come to the sanctuary. We connect there on a very human level…a personal level that becomes communal…that expands our vision and extends our horizons.
I also realized that we are a community that is profoundly inclusive, while being able to provide a profoundly intimate setting…this, both in the sanctuary and through the Internet. This provides, I think, a “real” fellowship…an experience that promotes understanding and even love…the basis for a Beloved Community.
Carol Lee Flinders, an author who spoke here at Fellowship Church years ago, says that the essential task of human understanding is perhaps:
The ability, and before that the willingness, to embrace complexity –
to see things with both eyes,
isolated and integrated,
and address their wholeness.
For Flinders, this statement follows her experience as a child of having a ‘lazy eye’…one eye that would not line up with her other eye. She went through years of therapy to get that eye to line up with the other eye, so that she could embrace the complexity that is wholeness…so that she could see life as a three-dimensional whole.
Flinders went on to write a book about isolating two parts of our being…our male and female qualities…our desire for independence and our longing for community…our competitiveness and cooperation and then integrating them into a whole…a whole that can heal our history of violence and separation and rebalance the world.
This is, I think, what we are doing at Fellowship Church. The inclusivity and intimacy complement each other, resulting in an ability to experience wholeness…the oneness of the water. I think that another result is a flexibility…a reality that we are indeed the “living water”…the “growing edge” of community…flexible, yet reliable. This dance, Wade in the Water, reminds me of this flexibility, inclusivity as well as the oneness of the water…
The “flow” of this dance reminds me of the flow of the water in the forest stream. It is the flow of life…the complexity of life. Flinders says that in order to embrace the complexity of life…on our way to wholeness, there may be a need to isolate as well. In her book, Flinders does this by describing a culture of belonging and a culture of enterprise. She realizes that without pulling the culture apart, there is no way to find a solution to its challenges.
Historically, this is something that we have done over and over...out of necessity…out of the need to define ourselves…out of the need to protect ourselves. Howard Thurman discusses this in his book, The Search for Common Ground. In the section called, The Search in Identity, he says that there may be some positive results of a self-imposed, limited sense of community. He says that it can provide two things:
1) a basis for identity with a cause and purpose more significant to them than their own individual survival, and
2) a feeling of membership with others of common values with whom they can experience direct and intense communication.
These are important results of the need to isolate…the need to regroup and find community among a group of people with which we share a common understanding of life. Thurman calls this the primary level of community. This primary level can consist of only our partner or our family and this is where community begins. But there is a need to go further…to expand the boundaries of community. Thurman continues,
[This sense of community] builds outward to include more and more of one’s fellows – but it begins at the primary level. Wherever community at this level is ruptured, some precious part of the self perishes. It is for this reason that the experience of forgiveness, of restoration, plays so crucial a part in the life of every [person].
I was reminded recently of this process of rupture and restoration when I went to visit a part of my own “primary level of community”. I visited my son Nick and his family. Today is his 32nd birthday. I am reminded today that we were at one time the same person, that is, until he was born. We were very close when he was growing up and I sometimes feel that we are no longer close. That sense of closeness was restored when I was able to spend time with Nick, his wife and his 9-month old son.
This is my second grandson, Leonard. Since I have written so much about Fred Jr., I would like to describe some of the lessons I received from Leonard. He is a totally different child than Fred. Leonard, it seems, has a profound sense of his inner world. He seems to feel at home there, while still enjoying his family around him. He has had less contact with the outside world mainly because he lives in a less hospitable environment than we do. He is in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a place where the sea meets the land in a beautiful way. I was able to spend a few days with him but I look forward to a longer visit soon. He reminds me of his father…more self-contained, but he remains open to life, as are all children who receive loving care. I was reminded of the loving care I received from my own primary level of community and this song reverberates in my soul…my father’s favorite song.
Although at times I feel separated from my son and his family, I am not. Nick and I are one at heart and always will be. I know we have been able to walk closely together and that is powerful. This is what Thurman means by the primary level of community. These primary relationships are key, because it is upon these relationships that we build a broader community. He writes:
It is of the primary relation with individuals that the bridge connecting one to a group or groups is constructed. Always a person is driven to do something about one’s personal relationships. A person must have free and easy access to persons who are immediately significant to him if he is to share deeply in community.
And it is these primary relations that are often lacking for the most vulnerable of us in our society. I sat listening to one of my clients the other day that reminded me of this reality. He recently moved into permanent housing and is struggling to adapt to this new community. After being homeless for many years this man has become accustomed to living with those that share a common view…those that share a common experience. For many who are homeless, this has included severed relationships from family members. This has meant that the fellow un-housed people become “family”…they become the primary level of community that my client describes as comfortable. He is trying to adjust to his new surroundings and I hope I can be part of his primary community during this period of transition.
Listening to my client and experiencing my own story, it becomes very clear that we need each other. Thurman continues,
[Free and easy access to our fellows] is the very stuff upon which the soul of a person feeds; for it is the door through which he enters into the Holy of Holies where God dwells. For behold the dwelling place of God is in the hearts of men and women!
Imagine that, if the dwelling place of God is in the hearts of our fellows, then we need to be in community with them in order to experience God.
So, where does this leave us at Fellowship Church? How do we realize this same community…how do we build bridges to each other…how do we find the dwelling place of God?
I think this is what that student was asking me. How do we honor and realize Thurman’s dream of an interracial, interfaith religious community where intimate and inclusive fellowship could be experienced… a place where “contacts with fellowship” could be nurtured. It seems that there is no other way for this to happen but to see with both eyes…to view the complexity of life…isolated and integrated…to see the variety of streaming water on all sides as just that…as water. We need to continue the search for common ground and a common commitment. Do we already have this? Have we taken seriously our commitment written so long ago? That is the question that we are leaning into each time we meet…online or in person. In order to continue with this journey…this search let us keep in mind the words of Howard Thurman,
…community is the native climate of the human spirit. It is for this reason that we seem most our true selves when we are deeply involved in relations with other selves. [People] cannot be indifferent to [people]. The human race cannot be ignored by the individual [person]. However skilled a person may be in a particular field of endeavor, however effective he may be in doing a job, there can be no peace of mind until such a person establishes an authentic sense of community with others.
May we trust in this reality and continue this journey…continue to plant the seeds of the Beloved Community…today and tomorrow.