Finding Community

by David Morstad

This week, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, together with the Association of University Centers for Excellence in Disability released a joint research-based paper on Community Living and Participation. It’s a worthwhile read, particularly for people who provide support services.

Frankly, disability professionals and self-advocates alike talk a lot about community. Providers offer community-based services and we celebrate moves from institutions to the community. It’s all good, but when it comes to the real sense of community that most people value, it deserves a deeper look. What does it really take to build community among people?

Community SketchSome might suggest that community carries with it the notion of interdependence. Fair enough, but I still wonder. I depend on many people. Doctors keep me healthy, mechanics fix things that go wrong with my car, and technology experts help me stay connected. For most of us, every day is an endless litany of our dependence upon one another. Hopefully, I bring something to that table as well, but when I think about the richer sense of community, I wonder if our shared ability assets really have that much to do with it.

Is community something that is earned and sustained by the mutual contribution of skill, knowledge, or behavior? We should hope not, because if it were, then threat and calamity would easily destroy it. Instead, threat and calamity are often the very things that seem to strengthen it. How often have we seen people bind together in times of trouble? Perhaps community rests upon something more basic:   Shared experience, shared values, shared time, shared spaces, shared observation, shared opinion, and shared connection, just to name a few. Perhaps it is about openness to receiving. In his Theological Reflections on True Friendship, theologian and ethicist, Hans Reinders, challenges us to reflect for a moment upon the notion of receiving.

“Being accepted, being loved, not even being respected, are ends we can attain by ourselves. The same is true of being befriended. Friendship, therefore, belongs to the cardinal human goods that are not at our disposal. The main characteristic of these goods is that they can only be received.”

Some years ago, I attended the funeral of a woman who had multiple and pervasive disabilities. People who loved her – and there were many – stood up and shared their memories. Some spoke of her ability to connect with and comfort those around her; others noted how she witnessed her faith, and brought so much joy into the lives of those close to her. Still others talked about her gifts of patience and personal strength and admitted that they were forever changed just by knowing her. I couldn’t help but find it strange. All this admiration for a woman who, in her entire thirty-year life, never spoke a word, never held a book, never took so much as a single step, turned her own head, or even sat upright in a chair.

Among the gifts that relationships like that provide is the opportunity to look deeper into lives than others might, and find community there.

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