Holding on to Healthy Community

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell tells of a mid-century Pennsylvania town called Roseto.[1] In the 50s, this town was populated entirely of people who’d come from a single Italian village of the same name. A young medical doctor who got to know the place became baffled by how the village had an astoundingly low incidence of disease—including heart disease, which was rampant at the time in the broader US population. This doctor arranged to have researchers study the town. They were surprised to discover the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania didn’t have an especially healthy diet, didn’t refrain from smoking, and were often obese. So, what could explain their excellent health?

Here is how the research conclusions were summarized by one doctor writing for the journal The Canadian Family Physician (v.55[7]:768) in 2009. He wrote:

“With no answers offered by the medical research team, social scientists were consulted. They described a unique sharing of experiences that defined the town’s social structure. They discovered a feeling of trust and security among Rosetans because the people of the town always had someone they knew and who knew them to turn to for support. They concluded that the extraordinary health of this unique population could only be explained in terms of ‘extended family’ and ‘community.’”

These days I read/hear many researchers, social scientists, and political analysts trying to understand the exponential rise of cult-of-personality pre-fascist movements in the United States, as well as conspiracy-theory groups and domestic terror organizations. One thing I hear again and again from people studying these movements, is that adherents to such groups find in them specific things they need: identity, community, support, and meaning; and the groups’ adherents often describe their feelings about the group as ‘like being part of a family.’ By all indications, we have a serious crisis of community in the United States, and based on the wisdom of experts who study extremism, this plays a role in some of the troubling movements on the rise. In the U.S., the costs have come due for our cultural and national elevation of individualism and individual liberty over valuing and building up of the common good and of community in all its forms—and as a result, we are in sore shape as a country.

When thinking about today’s lectionary passage from Mark, I was made aware of a couple of key elements. Most pointedly, that Jesus was breaking rules left and right. Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law took place at the beginning of his public ministry; and right at the beginning, Jesus breaks the Sabbath law by healing. He then breaks purity rules by touching a non-family member and a sick person. Which takes me to my second key observation about the narrative: Jesus cared about the wholeness of the human person—body and soul, and that is what’s demonstrated by his actions. The wholeness of Simon’s mother-in-law is the important thing. This is what Jesus’ healing ministry shows again and again. This is not to denigrate the upholders of the law in some way, because I don’t think that was Jesus’ point. But Jesus is showing that connection, community, healing, and wholeness are what matter the most. Therefore, he takes the woman’s hand and makes her well. So many people are impressed by his actions that, the passage says, the entire town lines up outside Simon’s door to receive assistance from Jesus. Eventually, he has to steal away to be by himself—because the wholeness of the healer matters too.

We live in a time of great insecurity—of great un-wholeness—for many people, when many people are feeling less than well: we grapple with fear of a pandemic, the insecurity that comes from isolation from family and friends, financial insecurity, political insecurity, climate insecurity. Historians have found that people in such precarious times become vulnerable to unhealthy community: to cults, conspiracy movements, groups formed around false narratives, and so forth. In our day, the ease of connection through online groups and social media seems to accelerate this trend, making it even more dangerous. 

Therefore, it is more important than ever that we seek out and solidify ties to healthy human community. As challenging as it is in this time to connect with people, we must not take for granted our relationships, and our connections to groups that help promote our wholeness. It is easy, as this pandemic extends on and on, to get a bit too accustomed to disconnection, or to find connection through endless loops of negativity and blame in the news. So we have to work that much harder to carve out opportunities for real connection—even if the means available to us aren’t ideal. I for one greatly prefer one-on-one face-to-face contact with friends over the option of phone calls, or online messaging or FaceTime. But with my health risks, I can’t do face-to-face contact these days. I have to make connections in other ways, then—in less ideal ways, even though that takes effort for my personality. I have to schedule phone and FaceTime dates with friends, I have to be more intentional about writing notes. 

Many of us have in the past been fortunate to have faith community to turn to for connection and support—yet for some, with the pandemic, that too feels out of reach. My hope is that this desert-like period, when some forms of community feel much less available—that it will help us see more clearly the value of community. My hope is that we will, after this pandemic, take it far less for granted. For the sake of our own wholeness and healing, and that of others—and even that of our country.

{The sermon above was delivered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Woodburn, Oregon February 7, 2021.}

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

[1] A thanks to Reverend Dawn Hutchings’ blog for bringing this story to my attention.

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