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Baltimoreans have long had a complicated relationship with their police force, and this latest tragedy in the death of Freddie Gray highlights just how far we have to go. I have only lived in Baltimore for a couple of years now, having moved here from my childhood home in Texas (a place also greatly troubled by violence). Yet, more than I can ever recall experiencing in Texas, police sirens and presence are now a very regular part of my daily life.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” –John 16:33
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