Rural System's

Community : An Essay

From the Clearfork Collaborative: Any community is hard to define. You just know it when you are within it. Until then, a tentative definition is:

all of those people having a spiritual or cultural relationship with an area or a concept, concern for quality of life within an area, or significant common physical or economic interests. A community may be a neighborhood, an apartment complex, people in a multi-county area, people affected by a project, or people very interested in a limited topic such as the lasting beauty of a region.

What's community?

One answer: Just ask the dictionary!

There has to be more to it than: "a body of people living in the same place under the same laws," ( if you ignore possible uses with ecological ideas, animal populations, and property law). It is more than a place called a town or village.

So what?

I think talking about community within a community can strengthen community. Talking about anything in this TV-era can strengthen almost anything because I think that social bonds are becoming weak. I also think that community can easily be challenged, and talking about it can reduce the effects of the challenge and allow it to adjust, adapt, or move on with minimal personal damage and costs. Few communities are as strong as they can be and stories of the disintegration of them fill history books. Continual self analysis by a community can strengthen it, allow it to adapt to changing times and strength of members and memberships, build capital, store resources (e.g., records, history) and avoid the mistakes of the past. Continuing to use "community" abundantly and in many situations with no agreed meaning will soon make it a useless and avoided word (like "environment" and "sustainability," now almost meaningless). The loss will be great.

Knowing about community seems like a good idea. If you are lonesome, suicidal, or bullied, you know you are not likely to be in a community. People can exit community by criminal action and drug addiction. People who experience community think it is so good that other people should have the same experience or status. They speak of it, and think about how to get others to experience and hear the same "good news."

Being vague can allow people to talk about the same thing for years and enjoy it, never really being in disagreement. Disagreement implies there is some standard and a comparison can be made between two not-vague things. As long as words and ideas like community are fuzzy, definitions not clear or never called up, then there can be peace. However, if there is a felt need to go beyond telling others about feeling "as if in community," a need to try to help others get there and join into that state of being, then less-vague is called for.

Maybe not. Maybe no precise definition is needed, only a concept of community that is clear. Such a concept is helpful for those frustrated by vagueness. With clarity of the concept comes wonderment at the conversations of others using "community" so often and in so many ways. It allows the dictionary definition to be tested (for definitions vary within these books) and those differences also seem oddly unnecessary. Perhaps clarity is needed just to help people realize whether they are "in" or not. They may need to download whatever mental anguish they carry that has been caused by people who lay guilt onto those not in churches, and those who are not being a saintly member of "the communion of saints" ... but ought to be. I think community is a good and desirable condition for most people and thus I ought to answer why and why not, and since I care mightily for the well-being of others, I'd like to assist them getting into this beneficial condition. Knowing I have little time on Earth and limited energy and other resources like all other people, I'd like to do it efficiently, and thus I need to understand that condition well. To know if I can knock a ball "out of the park," I need to know the dimensions of that park. To decide where community is, I must know the dimensions of that space.

Community is about people, but there are no natural boundaries in the definition or concept of age, race, or gender. It is usually about three or more people, about groups, because if fewer than 4, then discussions can be about "families" and "strong, lasting friendships."

Communities have identity. Naming a group does not make it a community but communities are distinctive enough and different enough from other groups to have their own, even temporary name. Roadside signs may be sufficient for some, but uniforms, flags, banners, songs, and other devices have an effect. Clothing or hairstyle may serve in some areas. Language and word-use may help some groups. People in community may not know the names of all of the people in the community, but they recognize them, at least can distinguish those out of it. There has to be a way of talking about "that" community, thinking about it, naming it for any purpose, analysis, comparison, or award.

Communities are of people within a place. This is not the most important dimension, just one in a short list. A typical community is the people in rural villages, but the same person may be in several. There may be a livestock raisers' community and a religious community within the same town and Mr. Farmer may readily identify as being within both. "This" community on the map, just down the road from "that" community is a common way of thinking of communities, but it seems a minor distinction.

People in neighborhoods know the name of their neighborhood and know the general, however fuzzy and unofficial, boundaries. There is an intrinsic limit to how far a person near the center can communicate with others away from the center, meet their needs, care for them, and be responsible for them. There are energy, time, risk, costs, and other aspects of the outreach to the outer borders. People need limits within which they can discover themselves and their potential. They can try to be everything to everyone and soon realize that have achieved nothing. Care, resources, and service have to be distributed or offered in the right quantities, in a timely fashion, continuously. If not (any of the three), it "doesn't count" and usually is viewed with disdain rather than thanksgiving and pleasure or an incentive for continual support and encouragement.

What seems to be needed for community is that the people in a place share common values and beliefs (and these are often expressed in the law (as in the definition above)). People may drive or travel fairly long distances to escape the above-suggested spatial dimension in order to be within a group. These perceived shared values and beliefs (real or not) are a major dimension of community. People agree to or find tolerable the laws, regulations, customs, and religious practices that are consistent with and reflect their values and beliefs. Clearly, this is one dimension of the church as community. Church denominations are typically break-off groups, people who once assembled within one church, but who no longer share the main beliefs and values that were perceived to be held there. Communities form around big concepts of economics and types of businesses, theological topics, environment, health, family topics such as child rearing, and recreational pursuits. People move in and out of groups based on their perception of the beliefs ...and the extent to which they are held in common. People are invited in or allowed in by virtue of "presence" either based on a quest for numbers of members and entrance fees (and the good that such numbers can do, e.g., voting) or based on their perceived similarity in values and beliefs. They then may elect membership (often with rituals and ceremonies) or leave the group.

Environmental communities are especially dynamic, changing throughout the years with laws, political decisions, history, finance, marketing, local effects of decisions, and most of the same definitional issues as being faced within the quest for the meaning of community. Many members of hunting, fishing, and outdoors groups are in weak memberships since they tend to be "loners" in interest and action.

There have existed regions and national groups, linked only by newsletters and the prospects for annual or irregular meetings. The feel of community grows, even without contacts, and place is in name only such as the-3-state-area, the Tidewater, the Pacific Northwest. Now with the Internet and daily correspondence possible via e-mail and blogs, new community is being developed. The community is very weak, but real. Place is very large, some worldwide or at least unlimited, amorphous, changing, and with shared values always in question. Ebay, for example, has opened a worldwide market and communities of buyers, sellers, and those managing the system are now in communities ... without spatial limits ... and few membership-size limits. The electronic community probably lacks the next dimension.

Communities often emerge when groups of people within are area are threatened or have new risks. People band together, at least for a period, to ward off a potentially harmful project, a disease outbreak, or a factory closing. The bonds may be strengthened when all realize that funds for a school cannot be sustained by a current tax base. The community may disappear and only be remembered by the survivors.

A major dimension of community is the responsibility for its members. It wants them to do well, be well, and to avoid pain and suffering. More than a wish or principle, it is linked to action, to achieving real help. People in communities help each other. The knowledge that help is present is a big gift. It need not be used in order to be important. It has it limits. Too much help can be weakening or can reduce diversity that is needed for stability of the group. People in groups gain satisfactions from helping. Helpers find a role. Those helped gain the "extra" that means success in projects and work where the individual effort is insufficient. Communities allow projects of a scale larger that that of the individual. Help may mean simply "working together." It may assist members ... whatever the difficulty, hazard, pain, thirst, or grief. Charity is not the issue, only success, stability, health, well-being. Providing protection by the mere presence of the potential of "group behavior" can be helpful. Thinking about and sharing resources and ideas, even when not requested but when a need is perceived by knowledgeable members, is part of responsible action of the group members, neither demanded nor contracted, but present.

Community is a feeling, but much more than that. It comes to many people when hearing that a house has burned, a factory is closing, or that a national Guard has marched off to a foreign war. If only a feeling, it may not be worth discussing. Community may seem to arise as people having the same described revelation assemble, but it must include the other dimensions suggested here. Memberships groups and assemblages are, alone, not communities.

How do you know when you have community? Philosophers and theologians have an entire field of study of "how do you know." It includes the criteria of pragmatism (i.e., "do they work?"), contextual (i.e., agreement of a uniform language and description), coherence (i.e., consistent with the perceived laws and functions of nature), sensory (i.e., seeing is believing), authority (i.e., past writing and speeches), deduction (i.e., reasoning from the specific to the general), place (i.e., feeling of "at home" and comfort), and convergence (i.e., unification and overlap of some part of all criteria in this list).

I think we have to ask: do we have community? How can we tell if we do not know what it really is? If we do know, it may be time to compare what we now have and judge whether it is right, as good as it can be, or ripe for adjustments. Understanding and building community just may be a good idea for us ... and all of our communities.

Robert H. Giles, Jr. , August, 2005

Perhaps you will share ideas with me about some of the topic(s) above .

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Robert H. Giles, Jr.
July 3, 2005