What’s in a Community? by Esther Nelson


Although the specific reasons elude me, I do get nostalgic for “holiday music” during the Christmas season.  I’ve written before about growing up in a fundamentalist, Protestant, missionary family.  My parents left their homeland (USA), their respective families, and everything familiar to them in order to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people (mainly Jews) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, believing Jews had been blinded to the “truth” of Jesus being THE Messiah.  My parents’ job (as they saw it) was to be catalytic in removing the scales from blind eyes.

The community they (and I, by default) belonged to and worked with was loosely structured, however, a dour-faced, albeit sincere, Scotsman quietly exerted his will into the day-to-day running of the organization, claiming that his decisions were in fact God’s decisions.  Missionaries who disagreed with him could easily find themselves “placed” (all God’s will, of course) several hundred kilometers away to carry on “the Lord’s work” in a remote location–up the Parana River, for example.  From the community’s viewpoint (informed by the dour-faced Scotsman), Christmas was a “pagan” (heathen, idolatrous) holiday.  We (the church–cult?) did not “esteem one day above another” (see Romans 14:5).  Our church community did not celebrate holidays.

But still…my mother loved Christmas and got around the censorship by calling it a “home holiday.”  She would never have called herself a feminist, however, she did on more than one occasion take it upon herself to name her own reality–celebrating Christmas was one of those realities.  The decorated tree (or tree branch), a few presents–caramels, soap, socks, and what I called jewelry, a small pin (brooch) that said, “Lee la Biblia” (Read the Bible), a special meal, and a sense of excitement–all these things wafted about our South American home during the Christmas heat of summer.  When our family moved to the USA (ostensibly for the children’s education), it was impossible to find a “good, Bible-believing church” that did NOT celebrate Christmas.  I discovered that “good, Bible-believing churches” decorated their sanctuaries with pine cones and berries, sang special Christmas music, and held parties in their fellowship halls where we ate gingerbread men, nuts, and fruitcake.  It was magical.

I’ve not belonged to a church community for the past 25 years, but those positive memories I have of my late teen years that centered around the church at Christmastime emerge during the Yuletide season.  So this year, in an effort to recapture some of that feeling I had long ago, I made my way to a local, mega church that advertised “our very own choir and orchestra” performing (free!) three times on Sunday morning–8:20 a.m., 9:45 a.m., and 11:15 a.m.  I opted for the 9:45 a.m. time slot.

The music rocked.  It was all so professional–the lighting (blue, yellow, and red searchlights beamed out at the congregation throughout the presentation), the stage (twinkly, white lights and red poinsettias), and the choir (all one hundred of them).  The women choir members were dressed in black, flowing garments, accented with red scarves, draped in various ways around their necks.  The men sported black tuxedos and red bow ties.  Their combined voices, backed by a full orchestra, shook the building.  The music surrounded me.  I loved it.  Most of the music selections were familiar to me–“The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Gloria in Excelsis, Deo,” and even the secular song, “Sleigh Ride” made its appearance with “sleigh bells jing, jing, jing-a-ling-along.”

As part of the show (and it WAS a show), a grandfatherly figure, looking like he had just stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalogue, wearing baggy jeans and a beige sport coat, narrated “what Christmas really means” at various times interspersed throughout the performance.  “It’s more than red flannel pajamas, homemade cookies, and hot chocolate.”  What makes this season wonderful?  Jesus!  It was a “special birth.”  (Of course it was–so was the Buddha’s!  Religious traditions construct “special births” in order to give importance to their mythology/story, I thought to myself.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The pastor preached a ten-minute homily, noting that Mary, being found pregnant out of wedlock, was shamed.  However, because Joseph (her fiancée) dreamed a dreamed telling him that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of the Holy Spirit, he did not “put her away” and stood by her as Jesus, the King, was born.  So much focus on Jesus as King (are we still about a monarchy in the 21st century?) and Mary as faithful and obedient–her reputation saved by her “good” fiancée’s dream!  She didn’t really have sex out of wedlock.  Why are women’s reputations dependent on their virginal (or not) state?  It’s a relevant question.  In the news this week: “Indonesia’s Female Police Recruits Subjected to Virginity Tests.”

The church bulletin invited us to join them throughout the year as they seek to live out certain core values.  Among those values was “living in community.”  Webster’s Dictionary defines the term, “community,” as a unified body of individuals with common interests living in a particular area.  Or, a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.  It can also mean a group linked by a common policy as well as a body of people who have a common history on social, economic, and political interests.  (One could no doubt unpack the word further.)

The word “community,” for the most part, has a positive ring to it.  Much like the word “home,” it conjures up feelings of safety and warmth.  But that’s not always the case.  Sometimes, we need to flee the communities that “grew” us, finding them to be stifling, dangerous, and ultimately alienating.  Inasmuch as all communities that I’m aware of are patriarchal, having absorbed the values to one degree or another that perpetuate a system of domination and power-over, where can one go to find sustenance?  I’ve not found that space in “established” places (churches, especially), however, I do believe those spaces exist on the margins of “established,” patriarchal communities (even churches).

I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but the “unified body of individuals” I grew up with, run by the dour-faced Scotsman, suffocated me as it attempted to keep out “worldly influences” from the wider culture, focusing on the “truth” as they narrowly understood it.  The mega church I attended also suffocated me (even though the music rocked) by its emphasis on monarchy and women’s virginity.  The Christmas story is capable of delivering so much more.

My late friend, mentor, and Islamic Studies scholar, Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), would often say, “I do not believe in laws.  Once something is a law, it needs to be broken.”  At the time, he was reflecting on the fluid nature of “truth.”  Once we think we have “truth” all sewn up, we need to think again.  I believe many (most?) communities forget they are products of an ongoing process and not the “be-all and end-all”–a cliché noting that something is so good, it will end the search for something better.  We, along with our communities (in spite of what many may think), are all in the process of becoming.  Knowing that (and acting on that) seems to make all the difference.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Belief, Christianity, Christmas, Community, General, holiday, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , ,

13 replies

  1. “Once we think we have ‘truth’ all sewn up, we need to think again.” Thanks for these refreshing and liberating thoughts, Esther!! The dour Scotsman humor too is a grand relief — does religion ever know how healing and uplifting humor can be? I once posed that question to a Catholic nun friend and mentor, and she pointed to Jonah and pretended to be him complaining about the whale, etc., and her antics had me laughing out loud.

    Question: what about FAR as real community? I have never been part of any group where a different leader or teacher takes command every day — that’s what makes FAR a true and exceedingly interesting fellowship in my view. Fantastic !!


    • Yes. I am a relative newcomer to the FAR community. Like you, Sarah, I do enjoy the posts from the wide variety of people who contribute. Perhaps expectations of what community can (and should) provide are unrealistic. There are so many layers and facets to this thing we call “community.” Thanks for your response.


  2. Such a dilemma for those of us who while recognizing that communities are important do not fit into the ones we were born into and have not exactly found others where we fit right in either.


    • Exactly right, Carol! Thanks. Maybe a certain kind of community exists on the edges/margins. I think about the Old Testament prophets. Were they part of their community? Many of them were treated rather poorly, and felt quite alienated. I also think about skinwalkers in Native American tradition. They exist on the margins of society–are feared, yet also revered.


  3. I think the idea of a “redemptive community” is a myth we tell ourselves. It has gained more traction in the modern world where many of us feel alienated. However, many of us do not have the “skill set” (patience, fluid opinions, perseverance, thick skins, etc) to thrive in a communal setting. In the past, people who did live in “redemptive communities” often found them suffocating, and what they seemed to focus on was friendship.


    • True enough, nmr. However, I think because human beings are social beings, some kind of community is essential to well-being. (I could be wrong.) Maybe we focus too narrowly on what a community is (or isn’t). Thanks for your response.


      • Robin Dunbar has done a lot of work on community and brain size. For humans, he says our brains are best equipped to handle communities of 150 individuals. He claims we make friends in “3’s, and “sympathy groups” (defined as any member whose death tomorrow would leave you distraught) typically consist of 12-15 people.


  4. It’s 45 years ago yesterday that I moved from the monastic community I had lived in for 11 years, seeking a different form of community. Through those years I found different ways of ‘being together”. Some of them life-giving and nourishing at least for a time; some of them life-giving because they taught me what is binding for my spirit and to be avoided. Now I rent in a large apartment building and am learning even more. There is a “sense of community” here for me. Some people are friends who I socialize with and can count on, others are neighbours who test my patience and compassion. We come from many faith traditions and no faith tradition. Our “community” seems, for me, to be based on our common humanity. Which makes me wonder what I expected from “community” in the past.

    Yesterday was also the start of the “O” antiphons in some churches. I’ve always loved them as the final Advent entrance to Christmas….and changed them as I changed since there is no longer an “overseer” to tell me what I must do in my relationship with the One.

    As you can see Esther, your story touched me and I think many of us walk this path of discovery and renewal. Thank you.

    O Wisdom, You fill all the Universe with your strong and tender love
    Teach us to walk in your ways.
    (O Antiphon, Dec 17th, my version)


  5. “Which makes me wonder what I expected from “community” in the past.” This resonates with me, Barbara. Thank you for your reply. Maybe I need to rid myself of expectations and let the path unfold as I walk it. Sounds like this may have happened to you living in the large apartment building.


  6. I’m pretty sure that no one “takes command” of this community, but we bloggers and commenters are certainly turning into a community. We’re having a big, on-going conversation about topics that change day by day but which matter every day.

    I love the old Christmas music, too, especially when it’s sung by big choirs and played by big orchestras and the music is good (i.e., not some pop pap). I just try not to pay a lot of attention to the words. Actually, a whole gang of solar and grain gods–Adonis, Amon-Ra, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Horus, Jesus, Lugh, Marduk, Mithra, Shamash, Sol Invictus–are born at the winter solstice, and we know that the birthday of Jesus wasn’t celebrated in December until 354, when Bishop Liberius of Rome moved the birth date of Jesus to match the birth date of Mithra so the Roman would celebrate the still new religion.


  7. It’s so interesting to read this post this evening! I’ve spent most of my workday creating documents that will propose a new “community center” to the town in which I work. The town where I work prides itself on its sense of community and in many ways it is a special “community” – a place where people care about one another (I work in the human services agency in town and I’ve seen neighbors rally to buy a house for someone who is about to become homeless), where they share fun and also come together for one another at times of sorrow, where a collective identity enhances individual identities. I’ve been part of global internet “communities,” including FAR but also others, that sustained me through serious illness, the loss of parents, and parenting crises. For decades I’ve been part of women’s circles that were communities. So much of my life is being part of so many communities, sometimes partaking in several in different ways each day. But, any group that takes from us freedom, feelings of self-worth and autonomy, our individuality, is not really a community, but is using our need for community against us. It can be so hard to tell the difference sometimes – we need to check in with ourselves frequently to see how being part of any group is affecting us to determine if it is a true community. A fascinating and thought-provoking post!


  8. Thanks, Carolyn. Perhaps “communities” is a concept much like the word “diversity” nowadays. Communities just are. Diversity exists–we need not acknowledge it. How do we go forward? “It can be so hard to tell the difference sometimes,” you write, about groups in which we live. When are these groups “life-sustaining” and when do they “suck the life” from you? It’s not always easy to tell. Sounds like you’ve had some positive “community” experiences over the years.


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