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My grandparents were true Depression Era citizens, and both Mom-mom and Pop-pop told me many stories about how hard it was to find what you needed during that time. Pop-pop was out of work, and Mom-mom worked as a bobbin winder at The Linen Thread; she stood for ten to twelve hours a day in front of a machine and she was glad to have the work. My mother was only eight years old when she and her brother started walking the railroad tracks for coal dropped from the open-topped cars to supplement the wood Pop-pop chopped from his own five acre farm.
My mother is now eighty-three years old, and she still talks about how she and her brother and her parents worked the five acres with the help of their neighbors, and how Mom-mom and Pop-pop were famous for their canned fruits and vegetables, and how, at the end of the Harvest, there was always a huge outdoor celebration that featured a sit-down barbeque for over a hundred people.
Pop-pop stood at the front of the line of homemade picnic tables and always made the same speech, year after year. He thanked God for the beauty and bounty of the land, he thanked Herbert Hoover (and then Roosevelt) for the freedom of the USA, he thanked his neighbors for their help on his farm, and he thanked his family for putting up with him. At which point Mom-mom would chime in, “Amen!” and the food would be passed.
Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s generosity to all was well-established by the time my sister, brother, and I arrived. Every Sunday she would stop on the way out of church to ask the pastor about the local families:
“How is Miss Ann doing?”
“Did Mrs. McGraul have her baby?”
“Did Big Jim find work yet?”
As her workweek progressed, she remembered those talks with the pastor on the marble steps of the church and, after dinner each night, she would gather canned foods from her pantry, add a loaf of her homemade bread, a fresh-baked chicken, and a bag of her (justifiably) famous sugar cookies, and then we would take a walk. My sister, brother, and I would sit on Miss Ann’s porch and talk with her about our little adventures while Mom-mom went into the kitchen to put away the food she had brought.
Miss Ann, Mrs. McGraul, Big Jim, and all of Mom-mom’s other neighbors were always so grateful for her kindness, and would thank her over and over. She always responded, “God gave me a great gift with this life, and I want to return the favor.”
Mom-mom and Pop-pop are long gone now, but their hospitality and generosity live in my memory every time I set a tray of doughnuts out for the congregation on Sunday.For me, the talking and the laughing and the hugs that circulate around the hospitality tables at the back of Old St. Paul’s after the service (punctuated by a lot of Thank you so much, Lynn!) is a secular echo of the Eucharist that we all share.
The Holy Hospitality of the Eucharist is accepted quietly and spiritually – the doughnuts, coffee, fruit, and homemade treats are shared as a banquet of friendship and community among the congregation, and now is the time for talk!
Conversation flourishes among the congregation as the children play in the aisles: future plans to get together are made, confidences are shared, and current issues are discussed. Old St. Paul’s is God’s House and this is a happy time.
As I always say, “Things go better with food!” I know Mom-mom and Pop-pop would agree.
The Episcopal Church seems a bit tarnished right now, and it’s embarrassing to walk around town wearing my clergy collar. I’ve got to stop reading the comments on Facebook because it’s getting me down. It feels like we are living under a shadow here in Baltimore. I worry about those who might distance themselves from the Church to avoid being associated with all this suffering.
Many are upset in the wake of the terrible tragedy that happened in Baltimore when a cyclist, Tom Palermo, was killed when Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook ran into him with her car. People in our community are expressing a lot of pain as they grieve along with those who are most affected by this tragedy.
Reading through the kind messages left on the donation page for the Palermo children’s education, you see the ways people feel connected to what has happened; school friends of Tom’s, the cycling community, work colleagues, neighborhood friends, the AA community, and Episcopalians who feel upset as well. After living in this fine city for a decade, I finally understand why they call this place “Small-timore.”
At Church, every week we gather in a circle with our Sunday School families to sing the “Community Song.” We point to each other as we sing, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s you who builds community.” We teach this simple song to our children so they will learn that each person has a part building community in our Church, in our neighborhoods and schools, and in our world. We want our kids to know the joy of feeling connected and cherished, especially by God.
But I wonder when we are going to break the news to the kids that there is a cost to being part of a community. Sure, when times are good and there are reasons to celebrate, it feels great being connected. But, when times are tough, and someone is suffering, it can feel pretty awful as we suffer along with that person.
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If there are human beings involved, there is going to be a mess, because people are messy, no doubt about it.” In healthy communities, people speak the truth in love, offering feedback and support when they see other members in trouble. There’s a another type of suffering that comes with the growing pains people experience when whole communities wrestle with tough issues and make plans to reform themselves and do things differently in the future.
I suppose we could avoid paying the cost of community by keeping ourselves apart from others, and by building up walls to ensure that other people’s pain and messiness does not affect us. But that would lead to a life of loneliness, and we would miss out on all the joy and personal growth that comes with friendship.
The organic rules of community dictate that there are puts and takes, and we all pay in, hoping that the community will be there to support us if we ever need it. But whenever we actively choose to suffer along with another person, we often discover a deep sense of solidarity and satisfaction, knowing that we have helped to ease another person’s burden through our compassion.
There is great joy to be found in the ups and downs of living in community. When times are good, we come together to rejoice in God’s blessings. When times are bad, God calls us to stick with those who are hurting, staying by their side, even though this might be costly. God ministers to each of us in our times of need through the willingness of other people to be with us, even when it’s messy. There is always more work we can do to grow in faith and understanding. God is with us now, working in us, and through others to bring about new life.
I can’t get that song out of my mind, “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us who builds community!”
— The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley