“Walking the Talk” — Community Life
— Fr. Bohdan Hladio
February 2009 A.D.
“It is not mere happenstance that our Orthodox communities have many practical social activities that draw people into deep and lasting friendships. Bake sales, lamb roasts, Taverna nights, basketball leagues, and dances are sacred activities when they draw like-minded people together in the context of the local church. This is especially so if the participants in these activities, their children, and their children’s children reject the pyrrhic “upward mobility” of American life and stay in one place long enough to provide a truly stable environment. It is only possible to have a community if its members are more committed to it than to their careers. Only when people stay in one place can they exercise the unconditional love that is the prerequisite to love of neighbor.”
— (Frank Schaeffer, Letters to Father Aristotle)
It’s no accident that there is an etymological link between the words “community”, and “communion”. There is an ancient saying: “Unus christianus, nullus christianus”. There is no true Christian, unless there are at least two Christians. There is no Christianity without community.
Other than liturgical services, we generally encounter four types of communal activities in any healthy parish: educational, cultural, social, and recreational. A healthy parish, like the Liturgy, will satisfy all our human needs. Social or recreational events fulfill our need to interact with others; educational and cultural events offer us necessary intellectual and artistic stimulation; religious services and Christian discipline both satisfy and provide an outlet for our spiritual needs and yearnings.
Our communal life, like our personal lives, should be Christ-centred, Christ-directed, and Christ-oriented. It is fundamental that communal activities in a parish never conflict with Christian principles. I once attended a parish sponsored fund-raising event which featured a performance by a well-known Ukrainian-Canadian musician and comic. The performance was generally characterized by puerile, vulgar, off-colour and sexually explicit “humour”. It was embarrassing. I thanked God my children or parents weren’t there, and couldn’t help wondering how the performer’s parents or grandparents would have reacted had they been present. Events like this do nothing to edify or educate parishioners, and only serve to compromise the Christian witness of a community.
Communal activities should always be positive, community building, congruent with the Gospel, and inclusive. Educational activities such as bible or book studies, cultural activities such as concerts, social activities such as dinners and recreational activities such as picnics exist for the same purpose as our divine services – to bring us into closer communion with God and neighbour.
In addition to educational, cultural, social and recreational activities, common “deeds of mercy”, activities centred on serving the ill, infirm, and elderly are excellent ways to manifest our faith through social contact. Charitable works both within and outside of the parish community – visiting the sick, infirm, elderly and imprisoned; helping out at a food bank or soup kitchen; offering help and support to immigrants, etc. – are an excellent way to build bonds not only with fellow parishioners, but with the community at large as well.
The communal aspect of parish life is much more important now than it was in Europe, or in North America a half-century ago. Most of our parishioners no longer live in a concentrated geographic area, and other than Church services parish events and activities provide virtually the only opportunity they have to gather together as family.
Finally, spending time together with fellow parishioners gives us the perfect opportunity to practice what Christ preaches – unconditional love for the other. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters, the parish is “a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the God desires”. It’s normal that we like some people and dislike others. It’s normal to have “difficult people” in our families and in our parishes (and if we’re really interested in trying to determine who the difficult people really are here’s an easy test: How easily and how often am I upset by other “difficult” people? Generally speaking, the more “difficult” the person, the more problems, shortcomings, and things to dislike they tend to find in others). By taking active part in parish life we are constantly challenged to relate to everyone – both those we like and those we don’t – with patience, tolerance, and Christ-like love.
In Letters to Father Aristotle Frank Schaeffer clearly underlines the reason we should be actively involved in communal parish activities:
“The person you bake bread with year after year for the church’s food festival will pray for your soul when you die. Moreover, he or she will look after the spiritual and physical welfare of your children and your children’s children. The bread you bake together, the lamb you roast, the raffle tickets you sell, (as Ukrainians we might add ‘the perogies you pinch!’) or the church property you clean is more than it seems to be at first glance. Human communities are not built on grand theories about “the brotherhood of man”, but by women who bake bread together and men who ref basketball leagues together day-in and day-out, decade after decade, seeking no more reward than the good of the local church. Moreover, since all of life is sacred, these so-called “social activities” need no justification. They are as spiritual as any Bible study ever was. However, they do teach a lesson: We come to God together or not at all. And Christian community involves the whole person, not just some ‘spiritual’ part.”