* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Community and Purpose

There are lots of different kinds of communities that meet different needs for people. We've been exploring what intentional components contribute to meaningful, authentic community. Mutual self-disclosure, active and unconditional love, hospitality, truth-telling, and sincere affirmation work together to meet people's needs. In other words, people need a place where they can:
  • know others deeply and be known deeply by others,
  • love others and be loved by others,
  • serve others and be served by others,
  • hear others and be heard by others,
  • celebrate others and be celebrated by others.
Healthy boundaries, on the part of the community itself and on the part of its members, make the community a safer environment for all of these intentional practices. The last necessary piece we need to acknowledge is purpose. When a community lacks a sense of shared purpose, it's more difficult for people to feel a sense of belonging. 

A purpose can be a restatement of shared values. A community's purpose may be to promote a specific value (or set of values) in the world. In many cases, it would still be helpful to clarify how the community intends to promote those values. A community can value the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but it's even more clear when that community says, "We're going to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person by ending homelessness in our region." That's a clear, audacious purpose that can give people who align with that vision a sense of belonging. 

If someone comes into that community and says, "I care about organic farming," they may not be strongly aligned with the shared purpose of the community. They might not feel like they belong in a community united around a purpose of ending homelessness. This is OK. That individual can decide whether they want to buy into the shared purpose of the community or whether they want to find meaningful, authentic community elsewhere. The community doesn't need to launch an organic farming program. This would potentially compromise the sense of belonging and shared purpose it has already cultivated. Unless organic farming clearly ties in with ending homelessness (and there may be a way that it does), the community can say no to focusing on organic farming. Members of the community already have a clear focus that defines what they want to do in the world.

Some communities have a clear focus that doesn't create greater wholeness in the world. Having a shared purpose still contributes to a sense of belonging for members of those communities. The KKK may not meet the criteria of our five essential ingredients, but their sense of shared values and purpose is undeniable. It's the clarity of the KKK's identity that makes it possible (and just and compassionate) to oppose the organization. Yet, the KKK still exists today because our society doesn't equip people to manage their anxiety and dismantle their irrational fears. When people find groups that legitimize their anxiety and fear, they feel accepted. They feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. They feel a sense of safety in the midst of a world that is hostile to their perspective. Fundamentalist religious groups offer the same thing. They reinforce people's anxieties and fears in order to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. 

This is one reason the conversations about essential ingredients for meaningful, authentic community happened before the conversation about clear shared purpose. If you get a sense of belonging from a community because they seem to be anxious about the same things you're anxious about and they seem to fear the same people you fear, run for the door. A shared purpose that fails to create greater wholeness in the world is not a purpose that will ultimately serve you or anyone else. This is not to say that every organization that claims to create greater wholeness is legitimately beneficial, but a purpose that doesn't clearly lead to greater wholeness is not a worthwhile purpose. 

A community's purpose can only be evaluated if it's clear. I once heard a community leader speak at a fund raiser and say, "This organization has done great things in the past, and it was because of your contributions. I don't know what we're going to do next, but whatever it is, it will be because of your support." Not a very inspiring sense of purpose. This organization may have a set of values that a lot of people agree with, but without a clear statement of shared purpose, all the members of that community can run off in different directions doing what they think will support their shared values. And none of them are likely to be as effective as an organization that unifies people around a clear vision. 

Some communities care a great deal about inclusion. This is a wonderful and praiseworthy value, but it cannot be a community's purpose. A clear purpose is actually a specific kind of healthy boundary for a community. Including everyone isn't possible within the context of a clear purpose, because everyone doesn't hold the same values or passions. At best, a community can be inclusive of every person who aligns with the clear shared purpose of the community. But a single community's purpose cannot accommodate every person who walks in the door with a personal agenda. This winds up creating a sense of belonging for nobody.

Imagine a mosque attempting to be inclusive by serving communion for the sake of a Christian couple that wanted to start attending. That mosque would fail at its purpose of creating Muslim community. It would alienate the majority of its members. It probably would not provide the same caliber of communion experience that a Christian community would provide. It would compromise its clear shared purpose (unless that clear shared purpose was to become a more Christian community). And it would probably fail in its ability to set healthy boundaries. Now, hopefully the community of Muslims that gather at that mosque have a greater shared purpose than simply to gather together and be Muslim. Hopefully, they have a sense of how they want to engage in the larger community to live out their Muslim values in a way that creates greater wholeness. That shared purpose probably does not need to include serving communion, no matter how lovely or insistent that Christian couple may be. Inclusion has its limits, and those limits are set by the clear shared purpose of a community.

Within the boundaries of a clear shared purpose, of course, inclusion can be a powerful value a community holds. True inclusion is a lot of work, though. It often requires a lot of time and energy, and it often means being hyper-conscious of socially accepted metaphors and practices. A group of people recently became offended because the metaphor of walking was used throughout an event. They claimed that this metaphor was a repeated act of verbal violence toward people who use other forms of mobility. This presents a real problem when commonly used phrases or familiar songs (with no intent of excluding anyone from their message) use a metaphor of walking. Being inclusive sometimes means creating new language, and this new language can sound stilted at first. Unless the shared purpose of a community clearly connects with creating new language so that everyone is included in the words used by the community, this call for inclusion can be a hindrance to the community. If an entire community is able to align with the need for new language, however, it can be a powerful unifying and strengthening factor.

Claims of verbal violence and calls for greater inclusion often fail to take a community's purpose into consideration, however. Angrily insisting that a community accommodate one's personal values is not necessarily the most self-differentiated approach. If you want to be part of a community, and you feel in some way ostracized, the very best approach would seem to be connecting the practices of a community to its clearly stated purpose. Even if a community values the inherent worth and dignity of every person, if its clearly stated purpose is to honor the human value of people around them by distributing shoes, it isn't really appropriate to insist they also build houses, even if building houses would also align with the community's values. If that community is failing to distribute shoes effectively, though, or if its distribution seems to repeatedly avoid a certain neighborhood, there's a clear line of connection to follow. When inclusion clearly connects to a community's shared purpose, it's hard to argue with. 

Personally, I find it difficult to be in communities with religious identities. Songs that praise or petition a supernatural are antithetical to my personal beliefs. Public prayers rarely call upon the strength and capability of human beings, but rather ask an external deity to provide things for people. Speeches or sermons often proclaim things like, "It's all part of God's plan," or, "God is in control." I feel like an outsider in the presence of those songs or prayers or speeches. I can choose to be personally offended, or I can look to the clear purpose of the community. If a community's practices are clearly in alignment with its identity and purpose, then I really have nothing to complain about. I simply won't feel a sense of belonging in that community, because my personal identity and values are different from what the community promotes. 

If the community's practices seem not to be aligned with its clearly stated purpose, however, then I have a reason to speak up. It's often the case that a community and its leaders are unconsciously making assumptions that aren't true. If I feel an affinity for the community's purpose and my values and identity align with the community's stated values and identity, it's up to me to point out how the community's unintentionally exclusionary practices can shift to include my perspective while remaining clearly aligned with the community's shared purpose. When a community lacks a clear purpose, it's much easier for me to feel angry, offended, and alienated, especially if community leaders express a value of inclusion or claim to be welcoming to all people. At the same time, I don't believe that I should be made welcome by every community I might visit. Some communities have a purpose I don't share and don't have any interest in sharing. Neither I nor the community need to change. We all just need to be honest about what we are choosing to make our lives about.

Just as all of us need a clear sense of purpose to make our lives meaningful, communities need a clear shared purpose. The clearer and more specific the purpose, the more confident people will be in their sense of belonging. The more confident people are in their sense of belonging, the more easily they will participate in the mutual ingredients that make community healthy, authentic, and meaningful for everyone. The more vague a community's purpose, the more tentative people will be in their sense of belonging, and the more likely they will be to feel anger, hurt, or sadness when the community fails to meet their personal expectations. Lacking a clear purpose that's shared by its members means a community will have greater challenges in creating safe space for people to practice those five essential ingredients. It's better for people to leave with a clear understanding of how their personal identity doesn't mesh with the community's identity, even if this means that a community remains small. A community serves its current and future members best by having a clear purpose that all its members can share.

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