beloved community

Kenosha Lake, Wisconsi

Destination: Kenosha, Wisconsin. Purpose: retreat with a couple friends talking about the possibility of living together in community one day. We’re getting to know each other better as we retreat in a large house on a lake in Wisconsin. It’s rural, quiet, simple, and pretty. We stopped by the county store yesterday to pick up some food and there were pig ears on the shelf. We walked around the lake as the hot sun beat down on our heads and shoulders. Two of us helped push the other out on the lake in a rowboat so she could row. Three days of lazy slow paced living, not our usual hectic lives in our respective cities of Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. It feels good. De-stressing. Talking. Listening. Hearing. But I can’t do this very long.

Currently, my two companions are playing fast scrabble while I try to write my blog entry for this week. It’ll be late. I’m sitting on the sofa near one of many windows in the spacious living room of this airy house, in relative media silence. We have not turned on the cable-less television since being here, and I don’t even know if there’s a radio. Our only connection to the world out there is an occasional and intermittent Internet signal presumably caught from a nearby home. But that’s fine since our purpose for being here is to talk, engage, listen, be.

Intentional community is tricky and takes work. We’ve been here three days and have already had lots of intense dialogue and a few debates. I won’t call them arguments. We are three strong-willed women, two white, one black, two middle aged, one young, all formally educated and a bit heady. Our backgrounds and life experiences are expansive. So different and celebratory, but attempting to figure out how we merge our lives in a meaningful way is challenging. I am fatigued. Can I do this?

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the Beloved Community he was referring to an ideal community of justice, peace and harmony. His vision included one where “our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation.” He talked about developing a world perspective. Great theory but in a real way I still need time to sit with those powerful words because they are difficult to move and breathe into. In more than one way, consciously and subconsciously those of us at the lake are all apparently deeply aligned with our own race, tribe, class, nation… and further, our own religious traditions, methods of communication, ways of knowing and getting to know. We struggle to break free and have definite moments of clarity in between long periods of blurry vision. Palpable. It’s called being human and enculturated from the day we departed our mother’s womb.

When I read about King’s vision of Beloved Community, I think perhaps I am not a good candidate for the community. Not right now. And I wonder who is. However, there must be something significant about human flaws, frailty, and imperfection because they too exist in the Beloved Community.

A passage that came up in one of our discussions near the lake was the puzzling Romans 14:1-12 and what it means. How should that line about the “weaker sister” be understood? Who is she? Is she me? Or is she you?

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.

Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.

What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

… Or is she all of us?

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care