This week my office sponsored a conference in Memphis TN. You would have thought we had flown to another planet. D.C. and Memphis are two different worlds: one is competitive, urgent, brisk – the other is open, relaxed, slow. It was fascinating to note the effect on all of us. First were the comments like, “This stranger, a perfect stranger, said hello to me as we walked down the hall, and then started a conversation. Can you imagine? It was really odd, kind of nice, actually, but so odd.” As the week went on, some in the D.C. group became, if not friendly, at least increasingly easy-going, until, by the social event the last evening, they were not only socializing but line dancing, singing karaoke, and otherwise having fun together.
Also this week I got to know someone from Kenya – and she compared notes about the lifestyle there and the lifestyle in America. Her mother worries about her, saying that she is suffering to be here, that the lack of friends and family, the constant necessity of self-reliance, of living in isolation from other people, is something that no one in Kenya has to endure. When I asked her about the food in Kenya, she described first not what they eat but how they eat: communally, from big platters placed in the middle of the group gathered around.
I also visited two museums. The first, the Stax Museum was set in the original studio where many famous musicians made soul music come to life. One interesting exhibit there was a map showing the street addresses of several of the musicians, all within a half-mile of the studio. One wonders if there was something in the water, although possibly a more likely explanation was the proximity of gospel churches where singing was a given and no one need feel awkward about it, the local public high school (Booker T. Washington) and a strong tradition of music training for students, a wide-open Beale street with live music every night, and a community where everyone – black or white – hurried home on Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole’ Opry on the radio.
The second, the Civil Rights Museum, was set in the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Hallway after hallway was filled with pictures and stories of countless people who marched, boycotted, and prayed their way through those years. As we looked at one picture of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a friend turned to me and said, “You know they couldn’t have done this without each other. Community was everything here.”
Community. The conference I was attending in Memphis was an effort to bring local health department leaders from all over the country into a community. Jesus himself took the time to have one – gathering 12 disciples to be with him throughout his public ministry. Of course, so did Hitler – gathering an inner group of henchmen and eventually a nation to serve his plans. Community is important to the human spirit, but the human need for community must be constantly scrutinized by each individual. Loyalty alone is not enough, even to a worthy cause. Jesus, recognizing that each individual must decide his or her own loyalties, was respectful of honest efforts to understand what he was saying, responding with clarity and persistently underlining the importance, for each individual, of choosing a path. He also had his own loyalties, but was unafraid to disregard the Hebrew traditions when those traditions, encumbered by centuries of interpretation by the privileged class, interfered with his understanding of God’s purposes.
In the end, though, Jesus told his followers to do both: to think individually and as a community. His command to enter by the narrow gate was given not to one person, but to his followers as a group. And that’s hard to do: reaching consensus, rather than majority, takes time, patience, and energy. The Quakers have done a lot of formative work on consensus building and it’s clear that clarifying one’s own position, listening to one another, and finding a way together, is not for the faint-hearted. But it seems to be the way to life as God intended for it to be lived. In the words and music of Al Green, let's stay together.