How Do We Define Community?
Driving in Atlanta traffic recently I saw ahead of me a car with Alabama license plates, and then noticed the familiar stickers and decals of work, school, church, dance studio and sports teams that indicate home This car was from Huntsville! I felt an immediate sense of connection to the driver of that other car, a sense of the familiar in a strange place, an ally perhaps in the battle of Interstate 75. Pondering this as I wove through the six lanes of weary drivers, it occurred to me that if I had seen that same driver in Huntsville, I would have had none of the same sense of connection unless those decals happened to be for the same team my kids played for, or the church that we attend. What does this mean about how we connect to others, and how we define us vs. them? That thought brought back a long ago memory of a late night in Paris, arriving on the train to find that our hotel reservations were cancelled and we had no place to stay. We encountered a couple from Dallas, Texas who saw our plight and helped us get a room at their hotel, and even exchanged some money for us since the exchange was closed for the night. We had nothing really in common with this couple other than being Americans in Paris, but we recognized each other as part of the same tribe and that was enough. We were the same because we were in a strange land and we came from the same place, so we were more connected to each other than we were to the French people all around us.
What happens, then, if we back up a little farther and look at the Earth as one planet? Perhaps some of our attraction to extraterrestrial alien movies and characters is that it allows us to see ourselves, the human race, as one tribe, as an Us compared to the Them from outer space. For an hour or two we feel connected to a much larger community and not as threatened by people who are different from us because, after all, they are human people!
Finding community, then, must take place on a large and small scale. We have deep within us a need to find our place, to be among our people, as a means of not only finding safety but of defining our very identity. In modern times, that means belonging to a number of communities at once. We are part of a family, a neighborhood, a school district, sports team, church and larger religious denomination, workplace and career group or profession, political group, hobby or interest group, and more. Connections in these smaller groups are an important part of being human, of developing our identities and creating meaning and purpose in life. Lets not forget, though, while finding our special connections and comfort zones, that from a distance we are all part of the same tribe, the human race.