THIS I BELIEVE
Ralph Waldo Emerson mused, “All are needed by each one; nothing is fair or good alone.”
I believe Emerson was speaking about community, the same thing I have felt all my life. Sometimes when the air conditioner takes its annual leave during the hottest part of the Texas summer, I sit inside Mt. Sinai Baptist Church recalling my earliest memories of community – watching Ms. Ruby, Ms. Washington, and Aunt Maggie coming to Granny’s back porch to whisper the latest gossip filtering through Parker’s Chapel. I re-united with community at my beloved Howard University, as place and purpose renewed what seemed to be their eternal romance. But with all the good that I know about community, my heart aches when I imagine the world my own children might inherit.
Perhaps it’s because I feel like community is archaic today, more renowned for its courtesy than its existence. A few short months ago, my uncle Elmer passed away and I was struck by the shockingly few numbers of well-wishers who thought to pay their respects with food. In the world of my youth, the death of a loved one was marked by the ritual of delivering a home-cooked meal, dripping all syrupy with pure compassion. The sting of death hurts a little less on a full stomach. That sort of compassion marks the decency of the people I love. It’s the kind of compassion that Toni Morrison’s fictitious Soaphead Church longed for when he mused about how we rear our crops yet merely raise our children.
My uncle’s death forced me to contemplate how best to build community in our disconnected society. I used to believe that politics was the way to connect us, but increasingly I believe I was wrong. This moment belongs more to the poet than the politician because I believe that community is in the core of one’s soul, much like the rivers of which Langston Hughes wrote, the kind “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
Africa has many old rivers. It was near one where a group of children in the little Khayelitsha township just outside Cape Town serenaded me. As they pulled my friends and me into impromptu dancing, I had an epiphany that day, the same one I had the last time I saw my uncle alive: we crave human intimacy, perhaps even need it. And across all that divides us, we weave our connectedness with our community.
I think of community as a person, in the autumn of life: older, perhaps a bit more cautious, a tinge grayer, but still expectant, ever hopeful. As a child born of Autumn, I have always found it an awesome season for reflection. As the green leaves of summer fade slowly into earthen hues, an almost transcendent peace manifests itself. It is then that I become who I always wanted to be – selfless, giving, courageous, and decent. For my uncle’s memory, I must believe our soul can again grow old and deep – like the river.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.