Creating community takes work

Building blocks include love and listening

by Anita Bernhardt | Presbyterians Today

John Cameron/Unsplash

More than three decades have passed since my trip to North Antrim — a rugged coastline battered by the sea on the far edge of Northern Ireland. While I still remember the beautiful views from the grassy hilltop above a sheer rock cliff, as well as the bone-chilling wind blowing in from the Atlantic, what remains with me is how intentionally coming together in community is a valued spiritual practice that can foster peace in this world.

I had come to join the ministry of the Corrymeela Community, an organization working to ease the societal tensions between Protestants and Catholics. Amid our work, I participated in the great tradition of the United Kingdom: gathering for tea.

With doors banging, people from all walks of life would assemble and plop themselves down in oddly matched, functional chairs. I couldn’t help but notice that the people were equally oddly matched and functional. Maintenance staff arrived in mud-encrusted boots. Teachers came with plastic tubs of crayons on their hips. The cooks joined, too, bowing their hairnet-covered heads as we prayed, and then chimed in as we discussed the issues of the day.

This gathering took place five times a day for just 15 minutes. While brief, what was happening over black tea and warm bread was the slow, but highly personal work of building community. In a safe space we practiced how to speak love with others. Remembering daily graces, we spoke truth about prejudice, forming the words aloud and testing their effectiveness with others.

I often think back to that time together, wondering: Are we doing the slow, spiritual and truly personal work of building community today?

Our church is like the worn wooden table in that kitchen in Northern Ireland. It’s the safe place where we practice our discipleship. We rehearse our lines, evaluating our language — our message to the world — to see if it sounds like the love of Christ. Remembering and celebrating God’s constant, strong love, we encourage one another to brave acts of resistance against known injustices and pray for one another. And like the Corrymeela staff after tea, we must push our chairs back from the table, return to the work of fulfilling our calling from Christ, and take the community building that we have practiced out into the world.

Anita Bernhardt is the general presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Erie.

Put into Practice

Practice being present 

Show up for others. Make time to be present to a friend or stranger. When gathered at a table, turn off your electronic devices.

Listen before speaking

Don’t be quick to reply after someone has spoken. Allow silence. Create sacred listening spaces that allow the right words to come, and then speak.

Dare to be vulnerable

Share your hurts, doubts and concerns, which others might be feeling as well. Tell truths with love and grace.

Celebrate — always

See beyond the traditional reasons to celebrate one another: wins, birthdays and accomplishments. If all of life is a gift, then what can be celebrated together this day?

Extend an olive branch

Seek common ground amid differences. Embrace forgiveness.

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