At the Jesuit-run parish I attend, the priests are always very careful with the word “church.” For example, at the end of Mass when they are giving blessings, the presider will announce, “Let the church say ‘amen.’”
Or at a particular moment in the liturgy, he may say, “Let the church rise.”
They want to be clear about the essential meaning of “church.” It’s not fundamentally a building, or a set of doctrines, or a hierarchy, but church is the people of God, and particularly the people of God gathered in community.
I’ve been thinking about community lately, because I realize how important it is to me and to all of us. We can’t get along without some kind of community of friends, and the quality of the community we form says a lot about how healthy we are as human beings and especially as Christians.
My prayer group met the other night. We’ve had a cold stretch here in Omaha, the city hasn’t done a particularly stellar job of clearing our recent snowfall, and four to five more inches were forecast for the next day. It was tempting to stay home in a warm house.
The email responses to prayer night were a little tepid and tentative, but the hostess reminded us that “someone” had once said “whenever two or three are gathered in my name. . .” So we’d have prayer group no matter how small the turnout.
“Someone” got us all there, and the warmth of the sharing more than compensated for the chill outside. It’s so uplifting to hear people describe how and when they pray, what they are discerning. Some talked about the wisdom they obtained in spiritual direction. One person was heading off the next day to a three day silent retreat.
For me, a good community is like a jump start on a sputtering battery. I really need that charge.
As church, we’re called to draw sustenance from each other. But very importantly, we’re called to extend that community to others.
One of my favorite people is Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit who wrote the wonderful book, “Tattoos on the Heart,” about his experiences working with the gangs of Los Angeles in his project, “Homeboy Industries.”
Here’s a quote from Father Greg: “The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those on the margins, but in your willingness to see yourselves in kinship with them, connected to them — to move beyond the service of the other, to a solidarity, where your heart is in the right place — and, now finally, to a place of kinship, where your feet are in the right place.”
How, really, could we move in the directions he describes without community? First, there’s the strength and structure community provides. What better way to address the needs of the homeless effectively in Anchorage, for example, than getting involved in some of the great programs of Catholic Social Services? How does one person respond to human trafficking without reaching out to Covenant House or some program that provides a plan and has experience?
And then there’s the wisdom and insight of a prayerful community. How to move from mere “service” to kinship, to solidarity? That’s a giant step. We can’t do that without prayer support.
Hebrews 13:3 particularly strikes me: “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
That’s Scripture directing us towards kinship. I know I can’t get there alone. I need community, I need church.
The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.