As communities erode, parishes need support

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A touching story in the local paper caught my eye.

A man died in the big city. The hospital where he spent his last days could find no kin, and the county listed him as an “abandoned body.” The mortuary handles about 8-12 cases like this a year, and routinely puts a simple death notice in the paper.

What happened next speaks to the value of community, but also the poverty of its absence.

A lady who had graduated in the high school class of 1961 from a small town in Iowa saw the notice and recognized the name. He had been a classmate.

We can all identify with that — how many of us have visited with old buddies from high school and gone through the “what ever happened to…” list. Some people seem to disappear. Maybe they’ve moved on and found broader horizons.

Or maybe, like the man who died in the big city, they live a tough life. Divorce, poverty, troubled kids. Community and support systems drop away.

If you graduated from high school in 1961 you’re on the far side of 70, but the lady who read the death notice thought the man still belonged to his hometown. As someone who grew up in farm country, I recognize this sense of enduring community, a sense which has eroded in bigger places and harder times.

The lady organized a funeral, found a cousin who cared, held a reception. Members of his graduating class attended and chipped in to cover expenses. A community sent him off properly.

People drift away, but usually we move into new communities. Most of us seek out community, which we need. I especially need the support of a faith community. There we are most likely to find shared values, folks unafraid to help us find self-awareness and a deepening friendship with God.

Years ago, an old woman who once lived in my neighborhood died in a nursing home. I had been a friend of the family — the informal kind who chats in the front yard after the winter snow has melted. Sister Patricia Collins, a Sister of Mercy who served in Anchorage then, presided over a simple memorial service at the nursing home, so I attended.

Burying the dead, I think, is a demand of community, as well as a demand of the Works of Mercy.

To my surprise, besides the immediate family of four, there was one other lady there. I went home a little numb, and very grateful that I belonged to a church community where ritual and friendship would sustain me in death.

Today, fewer people claim membership in churches. Mainline Protestant churches see declining membership, the Catholic community is buoyed by Hispanic immigration, and younger people are especially reluctant to be joiners.

That is not to say that people are not finding community in other places. But we keep our commitments fairly fluid. More people than ever live alone. We have “friends” on Facebook, a fun but superficial form of community.

Finding real community, even within a church, isn’t always easy. It takes effort. Fall is the time when churches are gearing up for classes and other activities. To find and foster community, take the chance and get involved with a parish committee or the class that’s exploring Scripture. Merely showing up on Sunday morning is not enough to forge community. It’s just a start.

Our church families are imperfect. But they are one of our best sources of life-giving community and we should support them.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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