Sometimes this happens: you plan an event, prepare food, organize volunteers, find a space, send out emails, set up the tables and the projector and find the extra power cord and make a last minute run to the store for more plastic forks. Then, in the middle of the gathering, you notice it. Something has slipped into the room when you were giving someone directions to the bathroom and finding more paper plates. Warmth. Connection. Delight. Community.
What is community? Dictionary definitions say that a community is a group of people who are connected to each other by something that they share—a common history or set of beliefs, a shared location or profession. But community is also an experience. It is the sense of connection that comes when we are in the midst of people with whom we share something important. I’m fascinated by that experience. It has so much power for good and for ill. It seems to be as necessary for human well being as food or drink. And yet, it has an illusive quality. It’s not something we can buy at a store and it’s not something we can manufacture for ourselves. So now, whenever I have an experience of community I start wondering—how did that happen?
This past Monday, 125 people or so gathered at Oliver’s Carriage House to celebrate the Oakland Mills Cross Country team’s successful fall season. This is the second year we’ve had the team banquet in the building my church calls home and the fourth year I’ve taken the lead on organizing it. It isn’t a huge amount of work, but it does require some advance planning so it is gratifying when it comes together. But the best part of the event is the part we can’t make happen—the sense of community in the room.
What were the factors that came together to make the magic happen? The biggest factor, of course, is that the kids have become good friends with each other. They’ve spent time together just about every day for the last three months, doing something challenging, supporting each other’s efforts and cheering each other’s successes. They’ve spent a lot of time running together but they’ve also played games and goofed off. They’ve also gathered for a spaghetti dinner in the home of one of the members of the team before every meet, so they’ve been inside each other’s houses, met each other’s parents and patted each other’s dogs.
It’s no surprise that after all of that, these kids feel connected to each other. But how does their community spread? How does it end up drawing the rest of us in?
That doesn’t always happen, of course. Sometimes a tight core of friends end up making everyone else in the room feel like outsiders or observers. This happens all the time with kid-focused events but it also happens at churches or civic groups or neighborhoods. There is a group of friends at the center and everyone else feels like a hanger-on.
This year’s Oakland Mills Cross Country team might offer some lessons on how to make sure that doesn’t happen:
- Families were invited in from the start. At the beginning of the season, the team spends three days together at a Boy Scout camp up in Harford County. The parents are in charge of buying and preparing the food, a fairly big project. Then, throughout the season, parents are called on to help with meets, selling t-shirts or working as course marshals. There are lots of easy jobs, lots of ways to step into the mix. That's an important thing to keep in mind. Sometimes we want to create our own little community and then invite others in. It works better when the invitation is there from the start and there are small and easy ways to help out.
- We all cheered for each other’s kids. This is a hugely important part of high school sports and one that I think every other group should adopt in some way. When I go to a meet, I am very interested in seeing my daughter run and cheering for her. But I’m also very excited to see other kids on her team run well. And I love seeing the beginning runners struggle to the finish line, thrilled to have made it all the way. Because I’ve been rooting for the kids, I feel connected to their parents. There’s a lesson there for other contexts as well. Adults sometimes feel compelled to connect with others in times of crisis. We need help or encouragement and so we reach out. But celebration—cheering and applauding—connect us to each other in powerful ways. How could we have more of that in our neighborhoods and our congregations?
- We opened our homes to each other. The fact that a dozen or more families hosted spaghetti dinners for the team is also hugely important. I’m always surprised that the team can sustain this practice year after year. In my experience, there are a lot of people who never have friends over for dinner. I can think of a number of people who I’ve known for years, people I consider friends, who have never invited me to step inside their home. The team dinners bring the kids closer, but I also think they increase the parents’ sense of connection to the kids and to the team because they insert the team into our personal space.
There isn’t a formula for community. When that feeling of connection comes, it always feels like a gift, no matter how much planning and preparing I’ve done beforehand. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help it along by learning ways to help us open up to each other. Even though I ate more macaroni and cheese and more cake than I really needed on Monday night, I left feeling hungry for more.