A number of things have happened recently which have caused me to reflect on community and what it means. Hitherto, I have tended to think of community as something relatively fixed, with a slow rate of change, but … Consider what happens when something unexpected or life-changing happens. Suppose someone is rushed to hospital or dies unexpectedly; in both cases a spontaneous community forms. A community that involves family and friends who although they already have relationships with each other, gather in support of those directly affected and each other. But there is more to it than that.
A member of my family was rushed to hospital on New Years day and as members of his family we gathered, both physically and virtually, to support him and each other in the changed circumstances of his life. As a result I spent last week visiting the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital each day for a few hours; and what struck me, was not just the community around each bed, but the community of friends and relatives of all those in the ward. People who hitherto didn’t know each other, but who took the time to care for each other, a community of the concerned relatives and friends who were brought together spontaneously by what had happened to their nearest and dearest. It doesn’t stop there. This gathered community extended to all those in the care teams at the hospital, who took the time to care for the relatives and friends as well as those in the beds. We all interacted in many and varied ways, pooling our knowledge and resources. It wasn’t organised, there was no-one leading it, a collection of one-to-one ministries — people being there for one another, walking together.
When anything unexpected happens it can be very difficult to deal with, but when someone who is close to you dies unexpectedly, it is particularly challenging. At times like that, having a community of family, friends and possibly even strangers, gather to provide mutual support is a particular blessing. No-one can fully understand what someone who is bereaved is going through. Bereavement is different for everybody involved each time it occurs, but a community of unconditional mutual support is hugely important, even if that support is more about providing space for grieving than anything else; providing a ministry of presence — people being there for one another, walking together .
Being there for one another, walking together – that for me sums up both community and ministry. The ministry to which we are all called by virtue of being followers of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) However if you want a longer version, then you can do no better than to turn my favourite spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who wrote in 1983:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire might be to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.” (from: Gracias! a Latin American Journal by Henri Nouwen)
Now you don’t need any special training to do that, being human is more than enough.