Simple Gifts: It Takes Some Skill to Raise a Village

The work of creating connection and belonging must occur at the face-to-face, human level. Rural people understand this common-sense principle and may have more opportunities to live by it.

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Sometimes a raised eyebrow can change the world. 

I just happened to catch this curious eyebrow in the middle of the church board meeting.  Judy was staring across the table at Mary Jo.  Mary Jo, with her arms folded across her chest, was listening to Robert challenge her treasurer’s report.  Mary Jo was a retired CPA who had managed budgets and financial reports 20 times the size of our little church budget.  She volunteered an enormous amount of time and talent, which was a great benefit to the church.  But Robert was rambling on and revealing a lack of understanding of the spread sheet.   

Then Mary Jo finally noticed Judy.  Judy’s eyes narrowed and very subtly, very slightly she raised an eyebrow.  Mary Jo immediately reversed her body language.  She sat up and dropped her arms to her side.  “Robert,” she said.  “Thank you for reading through the financial material.  Let’s talk some after the meeting and think together about the monthly report.”  And just like that, a depth of community building skills and common good commitment were put into action.  I’m sure a few others noticed.  Some didn’t.  It all sounds fairly simple, but it is in fact remarkable. 

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That raised eyebrow was more than 30 years in the making.   Judy, Mary Jo and Robert (I’ve changed their names) have been members of the same church since they were children.  For more than 30 years they have served on committees and the church board.  Judy has listened to Mary Jo complain about how Robert drives her absolutely nuts sometimes.  And years ago Mary Jo and Robert had it out with each other.  The arguments didn’t help.  Neither of them was going anywhere.  This was their community. 

Yet both Robert and Mary Jo came to value each other despite their differences in perspective, class and life experience.  Something else was also true about Robert.  He was a non-stop, one-man, construction, good Samaritan.  He volunteered to fix anything that fell apart at the church from furnaces to faucets.  And he did this for people in the church and for folks in the larger community.  When it snowed you would see Robert spending the day on his John Deere tractor pushing snow off people’s driveways.  He had been a widower for nearly a decade.  His only children were his building and fix it projects that have been such a help throughout town. 

Judy, Mary Jo and Robert have village skills for living well in community, and these skills are antidotes to the isolation and desperation epidemics in the American empire.  They embody the traditional wisdom of relating to people as subjects rather than objects.  Each person is a vast universe within themselves.  No person can be dismissed as a type.  Not if you have known that person for decades and lived and worked alongside of them. 

To stay in the village requires lifelong learning of patience. The pace of the village is necessarily slow and thwarts the speed of the digital world. The raison d’etre of the village is relationship. The web of relationships and the sacred space between people cultivates belonging and meaning. The loss of belonging and meaning is the reason for the isolation and desperation many in America feel today.   

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Columnist David Brooks has written about this loss of belonging and says the antidote to isolation occurs at the local level amidst face to face, small-scale human engagementBrooks is right, of course. But people in small communities and organizations are surprised anyone needs to point this out. Small communities have been cultivating civic minded and selfless people throughout our nation’s history.   

This work occurs in a village, but not just the geographic kind. Yes, a village may be a small town. A village may also be a family.    A village may be a religious community.  A village is a small-scale human community whose reason for existence is the relational quality of the villagers.  Villages exist within large metropolitan areas – but they are facetoface communities where people know the other villagers personally.  Villages are invisible to the leaders of the American empire because they don’t have enough people to target for products or votes.  But villages do the necessary work of cultivating belonging and meaning.   

Perhaps you would like to find a community of belonging where a simple facial gesture like a raised eyebrow has the power to communicate a world of significance.  If you have never been part of a village before, and would like to see for yourself, you will need to bring at least two things with you.   

Patience  —  The pace of the village is slow.  And the village is necessarily inefficient.  Often, really inefficient.  But if it was efficient, it would probably forget that it simply exists to build relationships.   

Humility  –  You will encounter people with whom you will disagree in the village.  Take a deep breath.  Disagreement is human.  So are relationships.  You can’t have relationships without disagreement.  If you want everyone to agree with you, find a cult.  

 People who already live in a village enjoy visitors.  And who knows, if you appreciate the interconnected fabric of the village, you just might want to stay. 

 Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book  Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.  

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