On Being in Community

At Beacon Christian School in St. Catharines, Ontario, students have the opportunity to learn about Georges Seurat and Pointilism in their art classes. The hallway walls are soon covered with the students’ colourful illustrations. Upon close inspection, each masterpiece displays a multitude of dots or bits of colour, covering the paper.

Art critics tell us that Post-Impressionists painters such as Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh incorporated unusual techniques such as rugged brush strokes or small intentional dots of colour to create beautiful works of art. To truly capture A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Seurat) or Self Portrait with a Straw Hat (Van Gogh) in their entirety, the observer must step back to see the harmony of colour and technique.

In similar fashion, the concept of community can be seen as a collection of unique ideas, personalities and perspectives. Ellen Leanse (of Apple fame) says, “Any community brings diverse and sometimes unconventional elements together, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” A community can display a harmony of many working together.

However, living in community seems almost counter-cultural, given the growing influences of our selfie-driven society. Type “self affirmation home decor” into a computer search engine and there are countless responses such as wall plaques that creatively state “I am Enough” and “Be Kind to Yourself.” Our bookstore shelves are filled with self-help books, and we are encouraged to practice self-care. Technology gives us the impression we are better connected than ever; yet anxiety, loneliness, and depression pervade and persist. While these things were created with good intentions, when we over-emphasize the individual instead of the group, we create fractures in our communal living.

This idea of community functioning as a harmony of many is threatened not just by the overemphasis of self, but it is also at risk when certain people are intentionally excluded or not welcomed. Hearing stories from families and staff in several Christian schools, there is a fear that welcoming children with special needs will negatively affect the academic reputation of the school. There are concerns of carrying the financial burden that comes with supporting vulnerable students, and there is apprehension of coming alongside people who think or believe differently than we do.

Jean Vanier writes in his book, Communities and Growth, “Communities need tensions if they are to grow and deepen… When everything is going well, when the community feels it is living successfully, its members tend to let their energies dissipate, and to listen less carefully to each other. Tensions bring people back to the reality of their helplessness.”

It is possible and tempting to create a closed community of just-like-me people and ideas that support our way of thinking. By contrast, in April 2017, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave a powerful TedTalk in which he challenged the idea of surrounding ourselves with such a bubble. Sacks believes, “It’s the people not like us that make us grow.”

We deceive ourselves if we think being strong together means only the strong belong together.  “It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community,” writes Jean Vanier.

In the last few months, I have heard some interesting perspectives and stories from families and staff of Christian schools. No one disagrees with the idea of living in community, but the expression of what that looks like in the classroom, in the staff room, in the office and in the greater community is the challenge. Almost every conversation quickly turns to the financial struggle of covering the cost of exceptional needs. Closely following the talk of money is the concern of welcoming families who are new to the school community who have children with special needs. I have heard more than once that it is far easier “to take care of our own.”

Yet when we practice the idea of living in communities of belonging, we begin to see that there are intersecting points of common ground with our own school community and with other surrounding communities. Sharing best practices and resources between administrators, staff, and families of our Christian schools with other independent and publicly-funded schools, with local agencies, and with other care providers, brings a deeper and richer understanding of community.

Reconsidering how we define community is closely tied with how we practise belonging. If it hasn’t happened yet, now is the time to talk about how we practise community, and how we practise belonging. What structures, policies and practices are in place that enhance communities of belonging – and what needs to change? What language do we use when we promote our schools, meet with new families, and discuss issues in meetings? How do we lovingly and humbly work through the circumstances that are beyond our own capabilities and finances?

I invite you to share with me your story.