Be the Village

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton made famous the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." I couldn't agree more. Communities of folks with a degree of interdependence and shared commitment are necessary not only for raising children but also for sustaining adults. As the poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island." But with all due respect to first ladies and famous poets, I 'm just wondering—and perhaps you've wondered, too—where do I find the village? Is it found with colleagues? Scattered family members? Church friends? Sports teams? Neighbors? Some combination of all the above? It's not always easy to know where to look.
I entered adulthood naively presuming that community—be it one centered around a similar vision of faith or one centered around shared civic interests, or ideally a little of both—would just be there, waiting for me. There was supposed to be some village out there, some pool of people waiting for you or me to dive in and make a life with them. If I could hold my breath long enough, the community would emerge from the mist—a living Camelot of sorts—ready to receive me.
Snap. Reality check. Unfortunately, I think I'm the one who's been in the fog. When I look around, I see that in terms of experiencing community in my daily life, I'm in the beginners' class. At least that's what it feels like, given my urban, transient context. I'm a girl whose home phone is a little black cell phone that is easily left behind at the airport in Austin or Albuquerque. I'm a girl whose most permanent address is at some server out in cyberspace. But at least I'm becoming a girl who is willing to learn. This is what I have been learning: One, the village might not exist, or at least not in the way you or I envision it. And two, you and I have to help build (or rebuild) the village.
My roommate has a greeting card posted on our fridge that features a quote attributed to Ghandi: "Be the change you wish to see happen in the world." Okay, I don't exactly know what it means to be the village, but I am learning some thing about laying bricks and mortar, so to speak, even as a single woman in a shifting culture.
Truth and love, I am convinced, are the bricks and mortar of building any kind of community. Without the one, you end up with a big, oozy pile of useless cement. Without the other, you end up with a jagged and fragile-not to mention dangerous—structure. I'm sure many of us have experienced hardcore truth that has wounded us or soggy love that has kept us stuck. One without the other is no good.
What, though, might it take to hold truth and love together? This sounds basic—I admit I'm a beginner—but I'm learning that it starts with believing that each actually exists. Most people I know are loath, at least publicly, to call anything universally true. We might trust that our feelings about something are true for us, such as, "I love high heels" or "I can't stand (fill in the blank) people," but saying "Yep, there's stuff that's absolutely true regardless of my feelings" sends shivers up many people's spines. It even makes me twitch, and I actually believe in the existence of absolute truth. But imagine trying to build a community without any definitive truth. It would be like trying to conduct a symphony without the possibility that notes, scales, or chords could be counted on to have a reliable, repeatable, universal pitch. Impossible, right?
Likewise, believing that love isn't just "a secondhand emotion" is also key. I don't know about you, but I see in myself and many folks around me the secret suspicion that love, except perhaps for romantic love that's rarely fleshed out beyond sex, actually doesn't exist. It's just hard for many of us to trust that real love from fathers to daughters, girlfriends to girlfriends, or leaders to followers really is out there. After you've been disappointed, it feels safer to assume an agenda and be proven wrong than the reverse. If real, self-giving, others centered love is not possible, why would anyone risk connecting to imperfect people who will inevitably mess you up?
But assume with me, if you can, that True Truth and Real Love are out there, and we can know them, at least in part. How could we embody them in some kind of a community? How could we build them into some kind of village, given our early 21st-century, Western, urbanizing realities?
I've seen the shadows of blueprints in a few real-life scenarios. There is something about a shared sense of purpose that creates a need for interdependence, and interdependence, which presumes a level of trust, in turn seems to bind people together. When I lived in inner-city Philadelphia, late one summer night we heard the rumblings of a crowd of people outside. Hesitantly, we opened the door to see a group of 30 or 40 middle-aged and elderly people waving flashlights and sporting matching caps. They were chanting defiantly, "Drug dealers go home! Drug dealers go home!" As we talked together, they explained how they were tired of watching their neighborhood die. And while no one person was a match for the dealers, maybe together the could do something to help.
A deeply shared sense of mission doesn’t just draw people together, however. It can also create a reason to stick together -- to work through differences, to forgive one another. Recently, I was at a meeting for work where the two primary divisions represented had significantly bad blood between them. As I sat through two days of hair-pulling discussions, part of me wanted to scream, "Oh, please! Can we just get on with the agenda?” But as the time passed, the offences, like splinters, were drawn out and healed by the poultice of apology and forgiveness. Without a compelling sense of purpose, I observed, nothing would make the excruciating work of reconciliation worth the effort. And without reconciliation this motley group would ultimately unravel. But in this instance reconciliation was happening, and a sense of authentic community was deepening. Frankly, it amazed me and gave me hope.
So maybe village building must start in really microscope ways—in the context of our small and daily choices. Maybe it begins with laying down a straight and honest verbal brick like "I'm a little lonely and was wondering if you'd eat dinner and hangout with me tonight" and waiting, a bit exposed, for someone to lay down the cement of "Sure." Or, instead of walking away at the first dropped brisk, it's admitting, "Ouch, that really hurt" and being willing to forgive.
Or perhaps the risky brick we set down is lovingly speaking truth not just about ourselves but about others—and speaking it directly to them. One rainy night, when I eagerly wanted to go downtown and take ice cream to this man I'd been seeing, one roommate, Paula, tried to talk me out of it. "It's too late," she said, noting the 9:30 hour. "It'll be dangerous walking to his office building." But I had pepper spray on my key chain and a great umbrella. She tried a few more approaches, and then she threw up her hands. "Maria," she yelled, "come talk to this woman; she's insane."
In walked my other roommate, Maria, who looked me straight in my eyeballs. I will never forget what she said: "Girl, if he's actually working late, it's because he's actually working. If you go downtown to see him, one of three things will happen. One, he won't be there, and you'll be confused and wondering. Two, he will be there, will be working, and won't have time for a distraction. Or three, he'll be alone that office and you know what distraction you'll both be interested in." She studied me. "Girl, if somewhere in the back· of your mind you're thinking ‘booty call,’ you better sit down and go nowhere until morning, or you’ll regret it.”
Like a child caught red-handed, I looked away, but a faint grin emerged on my face. "Busted,'' I said, and smiled at being known—and cared for enough—by Paula and Maria to have my weaknesses protected. I stayed put, and the bond Maria and me deepened.
You get the idea. We exchange with one another the bricks and cement of truth and love, even when it hurts. And let’s face it, you and I are virtually guaranteed—in spite of (or because of our shared vulnerability, purpose, and commitment—to get hurt. If you commit to village building, inevitably a brick will drop on your foot, or the cement will dry in your hair. You will lovingly stick it out there and, as a friend of mine says, “get it chopped off.” Reconciliation and/or healing will be needed at some point. But this is where trusting in the real existence of a loving, triune God is crucial. For it is only God's grace that can undergird and enable the crucial work of forgiving—and replacing—dropped bricks or sloppy cement. Without it, our attempts might be in vain. With it, hope is real.
Of course, willingness to rely on God's help depends on believing that God actually yearns to be in this whole village building thing with us. That's a faith gamble, but I think it's a good bet. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live together in some kind of divinely mysterious community, it makes sense that this triune God would long for something similar for his children. Given who God is, I think it's safe to trust that we will be supported in our wee attempts to build God-pleasing villages.
One of the most observable, if small, examples of this building process in my adult, still-single life occurred over the last six years here in D.C. It started off with a friend's brother moving to town. Jim was (and still is) handsome, and I couldn't help but wonder if he might be the knight sent to rescue this princess. But he wasn't interested in me that way, and when I'd ask God about it, all I'd hear was "Be kind and be real." So I committed to relinquish my agenda (not easy to do, but possible), respect God's request, and practice being kind and real, whatever that meant. It turned out to mean playing some tennis, having some honest talks over Thai food, and offering genuinely mutual encouragement.
Over time, Jim started dating Cara, and she and I subsequently got to know each other. What was amazing was that Cara's and my interactions became part of a larger conversation she was having with Jim and a few others about God. Somewhere along the line, Cara ended up embracing a faith in Jesus. I remember feeling awed knowing I'd been a part of her process. The reality of her new found faith was so much more real and life-giving than my initial empty speculations about a rescuing knight.
Eventually, Jim and Cara married, and two years later they had Alex. Amazingly, they asked me to be Alex's godmother. This wasn't a request to be a fairy godmother but the real thing—the "I'll pray for you for the rest of your life and be there as much as I can" kind of godmother. I'd already made that commitment to one little boy and knew how it had galvanized my relationship with him and his parents. So I said yes.
Jim, Cara, and I now have a tiny slice of community cemented with a permanent and shared purpose: Alex's well-being. Six years ago, when this all began, I could never have predicted this outcome. And while the four of us don't live in Camelot (our schedules are quite full and we no longer live so close to each other), the periodic tastes of the village are real -- we are people who can grill out, talk about real things, connect with one another's extended families, or just do nothing in each other's presence and enjoy it.
Maybe the final lesson in all of this, as least as far as I can see, is that community—even in an unraveling world—is possible. It just might mean starting small with something as little as a newborn, as daunting as one drug-filled street, or as vulnerable as a personal need. We might have to risk tabling our fantasies and frustrations for a while and grabbing onto whatever bricks and mortar—whatever truth and love—we can get hold of and start building. Who knows, maybe with a real God who really wants a kingdom of villages built, we will slowly see the least of us—fun-loving toddlers, that broken-down neighborhood, or a too-busy single woman —become a thousand. Maybe our small efforts will have mighty results. Maybe with God's presence, his children really can raise a village or two.