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Lessons on Community from the Cross Country Team


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.

Uncle Milton's Grief: Veteran's Day Remembrances


There aren't a lot of military veterans in our family.  On my father's side, the Quakers were pacifists and tended to avoid military service as conscientious objectors through payment or alternative service.  On my mother's side and on Dan's side, the stories we were told focused on our ancestor's efforts to flee war, not to prosecute it.  

Dan's great-uncle Milton was a notable exception.  At the age of 38, he enlisted in the Army as a private to serve during World War II.  As I understand it, his left-wing political leanings were considered suspect and so it took awhile for him to be deployed.  He commanded an infantry company towards the end of the war in Europe and then served for several years as a Major in the military government of post-war Berlin.

When Dan and I were dating and first married, we visited Milton a number of times.  He was in his 90's by then, living in Greenwich Village with Suzette, his long-time French "companion".  Our very first visit made the strongest impression on me because within five minutes of entering his apartment, Milton was showing us the collection of photos he took in Berlin during his service.

The photos were small, black and white but crisply focused, like an etching.  Accompanied by Milton's narration, they were profoundly disturbing.  Every image was of destruction--homes with walls blown off and their inner rooms revealed, streets filled with rubble and burned-out cars and trucks, opera houses and grand government buildings all destroyed by bombs and fire.  In each photo, there were people.  Children playing on the destroyed streets, whole families living in destroyed homes, old men sitting on the steps of buildings that no longer exist.

Every structure in Berlin during those days was unstable, Milton told us.  Every day, several collapsed, usually killing the people who were living or working inside.  Milton and other American soldiers ran the ambulances, but they were usually too late.  Rations were meager for German civilians and starvation was common, especially during the winter.  We looked at photo after photo.  Milton wanted us to see what he had seen: war and its terrible consequences.

Thinking about the relationship between grief and community makes me think of Milton.  The stereotype I have often heard of his generation is that they rarely talk about their negative experiences of war.  The famous Grant Study which followed the lives of men who were Sophomores at Harvard between 1939 and 1944 found that the stories they told about their experiences during World War II became more positive over time.  They would talk about how much they grew through their experiences, how close they felt to others they fought alongside, etc.  The few whose story did not change were those who had been traumatized by their experience.  They couldn't integrate their wartime experiences into the story of the rest of their lives. 

Perhaps that describes Milton.  He didn't remember war fondly but he remembered it clearly.  Within five minutes of meeting me, he showed me what he had seen.  I'm grateful for to him for that, and for every other veteran who does the same thing for their family, their community.  War is filled with stories, and even the painful ones need to be told and heard, seen and remembered.

Grief Would Kill Us If It Weren't For Community: Reflections of Big Hero 6


I am so glad I still have a kid at home so I don't have to go to movies like Big Hero 6 alone.  When I no longer have kids at home, I'll probably have to borrow someone else's kids to go see all the superhero movies.  These movies consistently address some pretty profound questions:  What hurts us and why?  What saves us and how?  What is to be trusted and what is to be feared?  What is important and what only seems important?  I'm fascinated with the thoughtful and complex ways many of the superhero movies I've seen address these questions.

Plus, I think I have the sense of humor of an eight-year-old.  Case in point:  I laughed until I cried at the preview for the new penguin movie.  And Big Hero Six had me laughing out loud in a number of places.

Now, before you judge me, know that I recognize the many shortcomings of this movie.  Once the plot comes to the inevitable sequences of blasting and chasing, things seemed to go on autopilot.  The movie looked and sounded like every other movies in its genre.  I pretty much lost interest in the movie during the second half.  

I also liked the same things a lot of people liked--the cityscape of "San Fransokyo" and the re-imagined Golden Gate bridge) and the big, puffy "health care companion" robot named Baymax who squeaks and leaks and deflates and inflates.  I appreciated the "nerds rule" ethic of the movie in general.  Unlike Batman or James Bond who have technological experts they can call on when needed, these superfriends do their own inventing and constructing.  And I was particularly fond of one of the friends, Wasabi, a big black guy with dreds who is very OCD about tools and traffic laws.

But what really fascinated me was what the movie had to say about grief.  Both the "good guy" (Hiro, an orphaned 14 year old who is a genius technological innovator) and the "bad guy" in the story are driven by the loss of the person they love the most.  In a world where bad guys are often depicted as driven by extreme ideologies or primitive allegiances which are incomprehensible to us, I think that its pretty gutsy to assert that both sides in a battle have the exact same motivation.

The difference between the protagonist and the antagonist is that Hiro is advised and guided by his robot Baymax to connect with friends during times of intense grief.  The other person didn't get or take that advice.  So while Hiro's friends intercede when Hiro starts to become malicious, there isn't anyone to hold the villain back or talk him down.  

This is a fascinating addition to the on-going superhero-fueled conversation about what saves us.  More and more in these movies, teams of people have to work together to solve problems--the Transformers, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Fantastic Four all work as a group.  Even Thor needed a lot of consultation and assistance in the last movie I saw with him.  

But in Big Hero 6, people need people not just because they need lots of different specialized skills and aptitudes.  People need people to save them from their own worst instincts--not just greed or selfishness, but the desire for revenge, the desire to hurt other people when you are hurting yourself.  Community is their conscience.  Isn't that interesting?  Who wants to discuss?

Agreeing to Forget the Harm We've Done to Each Other


I have been thinking and writing about the gifts of community for many months.  Now that I've entered the last month of my sabbatical, it feels like it is time to shift my focus to the other side of the story.  Coming together in community does not always make people more compassionate, more generous or kinder.  Groups of people can also be mean and hateful.  People band together to fight an enemy, to exclude outsiders, to resist change.  

But here's what I find befuddling:  sometimes, we come together to protect ourselves from seeing something or knowing something that would compel us to do something.  Communities of people seem to be able to create and sustain lies or myths or half-truths longer than individuals can.  And that's saying a lot.

My trip last week to New Orleans gave me several opportunities to see how well we do this--and how badly it screws things up.

Exhibit A:  slavery.

I traveled to New Orleans with my friend Karen Jack who was on a mission to discover more about her ancestors.  Karen's mother and father were both born in Louisiana to families who had long lived and worked in the area.  Karen's research had led to conclude that her great-great-great-grandparents had been slaves on one of the plantations that lined the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  We visited two that are closest to Vacherie, Louisiana, where Karen's mom grew up and where her grandmother and aunt still live.

The first plantation, called "Laura", was relatively simple.  The main building was a beautiful creole-style structure which had served as the business office for the plantation--the family actually lived 50 miles down the river in New Orleans.  Our guide was a man dressed in work clothes who did a great job telling the story of three generations of the family which originally owned the plantation.  The tour included a visit to a single slave cabin which had been rebuilt on the property, representing the 69 cabins which housed 175 slaves in the decades preceding the Civil War.  

According to our guide, the third generation owner, Laura Locoul Gore, was disgusted by the human cruelty on which the family business was founded.  She sold off everything and left Louisiana, never to return.

The second plantation at which we stopped, Oak Alley, was more unsettling.  The house there was much grander—the owner who had it built used it not for business but for entertaining and as his primary residence.  A spectacular row of enormous oaks framed the view from the second floor gallery out to the Mississippi. 

Our tour guide was a white woman wearing a period dress complete with a hoop skirt.  She smiled like a gracious hostess as she showed our group the “shoo-fly fan” positioned over the enormous dining room table that would have been pulled by a slave who sat in the corner.  She pointed out the glass jars designed to serve as flycatchers positioned all around the table.  We got the picture—lots of livestock in close proximity, no screens, all windows and doors kept open to keep the air circulating, and the result is a ton of flies and other insects in the house. 

The guide also pointed out the chair in the children’s room where the enslaved “night nurse” would sit, keeping guard as the children slept in case a river rat or some other animal crawled in the open windows.  She then stood in the hallway and pointed out portraits of the original family and their children—out of six children born to the couple, two lived to adulthood.  

Clearly, plantation life wasn’t idyllic, even for the owners.  But it was significantly worse for the slaves.

The foundation that now owns and operates Oak Alley has rebuilt a row of six slave cabins in the location where there were originally many more.  This part of the tour was self-guided—a series of signs inside and outside the cabins described the life of “house slaves” and “field slaves” (and how they were different) as well as how the sick were cared for in a “sick house”.  The information, while limited, was not sugar-coated.  For example:

  •  Sugar cane was the main cash crop of all the plantations along “River Road”.  The slaves planted and harvested the cane (cutting it by hand with sharp machetes was treacherous work).  They also processed the cane there on the plantation, boiling it down in progressively smaller pots, skimming off impurities as they went.  This was also incredibly hazardous work.  Injuries were common and the doctor who was on call had essentially one remedy:  amputation.
  • During the sugar cane harvest which lasted from October through December, the slaves worked 18 hour days.
  • If any slave did get sick (and in a tropical climate full of mosquitoes and swamps, people got sick all the time) they were quarantined in the “sick house” and cared for by other slaves who had no resources or medicine at their disposal.  Needless to say, the mortality rate was high.
  • Slave rations were essentially starvation rations.  Each slave had to tend their own garden and raise their own chicken and hogs (if they were lucky) to supplement the food they were given by the plantation owner.  They did this work at night, after they came in from their day of working in the fields.

The slave cabins were close enough to the manor house that the master could have heard conversations the slaves had on their front porches at night.  This amazed me.  I always had the thought that slavery was sustained in the United States in part by being hidden, out in the fields, away from the cities, away from the genteel lives of those whose wealth depended on cruelty.  But at Oak Alley, nothing was hidden.

How did the owners live like that?  I found my answer in an exhibit in one of the slave cabins on medical practices.  Shipping records revealed that an exceptionally large amount of opiates were regularly delivered to the plantation (as well as the laxatives which regular opiate usage necessitates).  There was some comment that suggested this medication was used to treat injured slaves, but I found that hard to believe.  It seems clear to me that the owner of the plantation managed to live as he did by drugging himself.

It seemed like a pretty good metaphor for how we tolerated--and benefited from--slavery for as long as we did.  We just nodded off and refused to see what was right in front of us.