The Synergy of Community

I have lived and worked in boarding and day schools—secular and Episcopal—for thirty years. Throughout this time, I have appreciated the different ways that schools sustain community. The Episcopal school approach begins with dedicated commitment to gather…maybe more than we want! Many schools have chapels, school meetings, advisory gatherings, affinity group meetings, in addition to classes, sports teams, music groups, etc. We meet an awful lot. We meet sometimes just to be present together—in schools and in churches. Indeed, when asked what was unique to Anglicans, Desmond Tutu simply responded, “we meet!” Being together in community seems to lie at the heart of the Anglican and Episcopal experience. At its best, in a community where praying shapes believing, being together defines our identity, refines our theology, and increases our humanity. The development of community is central to the life of the church, helping individuals understand their identity, empowering them to spread the good news in a fractured world. This is just as true in Episcopal schools as it is in congregations. Perhaps even more so.

The school environment develops this power of community most acutely by bringing an even wider diversity of individuals together, uniting them in a shared purpose and common experience which elevates beyond mere community to communitas. This is the Latin word which, in anthropological circles, refers not only to membership in a group but also to the shared ritualized experience of moving through liminal (threshold) experiences together. The rites of passage through school are certainly liminal experiences that can unify and unite. In the midst of the challenges of the present age (increased polarization, environmental crisis, and staggering mental health challenges), schools emerge as places that draw students together to share their burdens, magnify their joys, and raise questions of meaning and purpose.

Episcopal schools, grounded in the incarnational theology that lies at the core of the Anglican vision, can elevate communitas. Our fundamental belief in who we are profoundly impacts how we are and what we might do together in Christ-centered communities inviting the full  of human experience, wisdom traditions, and varied perspectives. As one mentor often reminded me, “the holy became flesh so that all flesh might be holy.” If we take the incarnation seriously, then we are being called forth to live in gracious response to the redeeming, reconciling gift of divine love. Our future, our children’s future, the future of our local and global community hinges on a power for good being activated, on our ability to work not alone, but together in partnership, community, and collaboration. Communitas can never be an individual act, but rather points to our deeper interconnectedness.

In his last sermon, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be (Sermon at National Cathedral, March 31, 1968).

What Dr. King is referring to is what he often called “Beloved Community,” best captured in the African Zulu word Ubuntu (“I am because we are.”) The Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh, spoke of the concept of interbeing, “the understanding that nothing exists separately from anything else…by taking care of another person you take care of yourself” (How to Fight). Hinduism’s myth of the net of Indra suggests a similar realization in which each shining gem in a net of gems reflects the light of each other, augmenting their brightness and magnifying their light. The identity of one depends on the identity of all; the thriving of one depends on the thriving of all. We are knit together in that single garment of destiny. 

Finally, in a stunningly simple and profound realization, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, described his epiphany: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).

How do we help our students and our communities cultivate incarnational communitas? How do we magnify and augment our light? How do we help each other see that we are indeed shining like the sun? We meet. We meet together with intention, leaning in, creating a synergy where 2+2=5, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. This is the synergy of community, it is a light that can shine in the darkness of polarization and fragmentation, that can shine in the quagmire of division and discord, that can shine through the wilderness of despair and uncertainty. This is the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. 

As we all do the good work of building community, as we stand on the shoulders of others and look into the future as Episcopal schools, we can create a collective vision and shine together. The promise of the future depends on this synergy of our community: communion, collaboration, interconnection. Let’s meet.

The Rev. Michael Spencer is Head of School at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, OR. He previously served as vice rector for faculty at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH and is the author of published sermons, poetry, and articles on education and ministry. He serves as the vice president of the NAES Governing Board.