Columns, Community Voice

Being who we are

Chapter 3

I now live on the Great Plains. Thus far, winter has been epic. It’s not just the snow and cold, but the wind gusting unchallenged along the prairie, blowing the snow and intensifying the cold that inspires a sense of awe and fragility.

I find myself wondering what I would do if I were stranded along the highway in a blizzard or if there were a sudden power outage shutting off my heat and electricity. How (long) would I survive? Then I think about those who lived on the unforgiving prairie decades and centuries before cars and central heating and everything I am relying on to weather this long, legendary winter.

While I can’t fully imagine what it would take to survive until spring without any contemporary necessities and amenities, I do know I wouldn’t want to attempt it alone. And this might explain why humans have, since the beginning, banded together in tribes and bonded through collaborative ventures like hunting and harvesting, barn raising and quilting bees, minding children and tending the sick. We depended on each other, and we survived.

Karis Thompson

But this time-tested ethic of communal interdependence — once a hallmark of our American experience — has been sidelined by professionalized services, a silo-ing of sectors and industries, and social segmentation and segregation. We no longer need each other to survive.

Decades ago, we abolished segregation as enforceable by law, but we have continued to evolve patterns of segmentation by race, class, and experience in our cities and neighborhoods, our networks and friendships, and, most markedly, our churches.

Yet despite our not needing each other for physical survival, we still seem to want — and need — to be with each other. Exhibit A: Coffee shops. We could easily drink coffee less expensively and compute more comfortably at home or the office, but we gravitate towards these new icons of the public realm.

Exhibit B: Facebook, the social networking mecca now has 350 million members. (In comparison, the United States has a population of 308 million.) We want connection, crave community, but now, instead of relying on whoever happens to live nearby, we can associate with people of our choosing — the people we like who like us and are, often, much like us.

In a 2001 study, sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James Cook, among others, observed this inevitable, universal phenomenon of homophily (the love of the same) to explain how our chosen relational interactions default into homogenous, niche groupings, segregated by boundaries of similar/dissimilar.

Decades ago, we abolished segregation as enforceable by law, but we have continued to evolve patterns of segmentation by race, class, and experience in our cities and neighborhoods, our networks and friendships, and, most markedly, our churches. Martin Luther King, Jr., identified Sunday at 11:00 a.m. as the most segregated hour in America. And still, more than 40 years later, only seven percent of churches are racially integrated. People of color constitute 35 percent of the total population of the U.S., but only 3.35 percent of the ELCA.

Where will we go from here?

Finding unity in death … and resurrection

Back to where we came from, I hope. At its beginning, the church embodied a oneness in Christ Jesus, transcending formerly immutable boundaries of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. The birth of the church witnessed to a bond not of necessity or choice, but a unity bound up in the identity, the death, the resurrection of Christ.

Membership in Christ’s body has always been conditioned not by who you are but by whose you are. So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Romans 12:5). We might not have chosen each other, but we belong to each other because we belong to Christ.

This is who we are. Bound up into one community, one communion. Bound together not because of our survival or tribal instincts. Not because of our mutual liking or likeness. Not because of a common ideal, interest, or identity. But because of who Christ is. Because of how Christ has redeemed and reconciled us as the people of God.

The church is not another affinity group manifesting the sociological inevitability of “birds of a feather flock together.” The church is the body of Christ witnessing to the power of Christ to reconcile the most unlike and unlikely people into one communion.

Bound together not because of our survival or tribal instincts. Not because of our mutual liking or likeness. Not because of a common ideal, interest, or identity. But because of who Christ is.

This is who we are. This is our witness in this world of banding together just to weather through or bonding via common categorization. As Jesus prayed, Father, may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:23).

Karis Thompson began working as a community organizer with The Project F-M, a vision + venture to cultivate a 21st century faith community in the Fargo-Moorhead context, in September 2009. She shares stories and questions of the evolving faith community connected through The Project F-M.

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