Abraham Verghese's masterful novel, "Cutting for Stone" tells the story of twin boys, born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun who had a relationship with a British surgeon. Because their mother dies during childbirth and their father flees the country, the twins are raised by two of the hospital staff, Hema (an obstetrician) and Ghosh (who becomes a surgeon). The couple falls in love as they care for the infants and eventually, Ghosh proposes. Hema accepts--but only for a year. For the rest of their lives, Ghosh proposes on their anniversary, and Hema agrees again to marry him for another year.
The relationship between Hema and Ghosh adds a bit of comedy to a story that involves a lot of conflict and sadness. But their unique marriage stayed with me long after I forgot other elements of the plot. In fact, I've brought it up on several wedding anniversaries. Dan has not found this particularly amusing--for him, marriage means having an important question settled once and for all. And while I certainly see his point, there is something compelling to me about asking each other once a year, "Do we still want to do this?" It means that we don't just continue on automatic pilot. It means that we have to recall the reasons why our marriage has value and consider what we must do (or stop doing) to keep it going.
I serve a congregation that continues with this same model of commitment that Hema and Ghosh have. Membership in our community is for one year only. Each November, every person in our community must decide whether or not to become a member for the following year. The question isn't just a rhetorical one, either. Each year, some people who have been members for years decide to take a year off. Each year, someone who has been around our community for years without ever becoming a member decides to join. Once everyone has considered their own commitments, we gather for a whole-congregation retreat to ask, "Is God still calling us to be a faith community?" If we decide the answer is yes (and that's what we've decided each year for almost 50 years now) then we re-covenant as a community during a wonderfully celebratory worship service.
I have never encountered another church that handles membership in this way. In most churches, membership is for life. Even if you stop attending a church, they will still count you as a member (and request a pledge from you) unless you actively protest. I think the idea is that people may drift away, but there will come a point when they realize they need a church, and there it will be, ready and willing to welcome them back. But now that I've encountered the Kittamaqundi Community style of membership, I wouldn't want to do it any other way. It means that we can't take our community for granted. We're clear that our common life arises out of the intentional commitment of each of our members.
I've been wondering this week, is there some way to ask an entire city, "Do we still want to do this?" That might seems ridiculous considering the amount of infrastructure and investment that goes into building a community like Columbia, MD. I know this city will continue whether or not we "opt in". But Columbia is a planned community, organized with a very specific set of intentions. It was meant to be racially and economically integrated, a model to the rest of the nation that was wondering if such a community was even possible. Many of the "pioneers" who first moved to Columbia came because they were interested in living in such a community--by moving here, they "opted in" to the vision of the developer, Jim Rouse.
But now, fifty years later, there are all sorts of other reasons to move to Columbia--location, schools, the "high quality of life" recently celebrated by Money Magazine. So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that not everyone who lives or works here believes that lower income people, for example, should be able to buy a home or even rent an apartment in Columbia. I've heard this value questioned explicitly and implicitly at all sorts of public meetings over the past year. It gets my back up. "This community was never intended to be an enclave for the one percent!" I want to shout. "Don't you get it??"
But maybe what we really should do is pose the question. Do we, as a community, still share this value? Do we still want to live in a community where "the janitor and the CEO" lives nearby each other, as Rouse famously said. Maybe we have gotten ahead of ourselves in our conversations about how to build affordable house or end homelessness. Maybe we need to back up and ask the kinds of questions that would help us to remember why this was ever a value to begin with.
In the early years of Columbia, I've heard there were annual celebrations of the community's birthday at the lakefront. We have another big birthday coming up next year. The best possible thing to celebrate at that time is not that we made it this far--but that we have generated the community will to continue.