In Search of Community

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Years ago I had the chance to forsake my Midwestern roots for a move to sunny Arizona. Happy to escape the impenetrable clouds of a Michigan winter, I was delighted to wake up every day to brilliant blue skies. There was only one problem. There was almost no sense of community in my neighborhood. The look-alike stucco houses with red-tiled roofs, attached garages, and concrete-fenced backyards made for complete privacy. Most people simply drove into their garages, shut the door behind them, and entered their own private world, where they stayed until it was time to get in their cars and go somewhere. The wide open spaces of neighborhoods where children were free to roam and neighbors interacted were nowhere evident. The design of my neighborhood spoke volumes about our culture's overemphasis on privacy and individualism, values that can work against our sense of belonging and rootedness.

Eventually I made the move back to Michigan, to a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and older homes, to a place that laid claim to the oldest continuous Fourth of July parade in the state. Every year people line the streets to watch the Hollyhock Parade, complete with a neighborhood band, politicians throwing candy, homemade floats, and children riding bikes decorated in red, white, and blue. Easter egg hunts and frequent get-togethers in neighbors' homes make it seem like you've been transported back into the 1950s. This is a place where people feel a sense of belonging. That's why they move here.

Without a sense of belonging, we become isolated and lonely, attempting to live without a network of close friends and family. No wonder we experience life as stressful and find it difficult to sense God's peace.

When bicycles became the rage in the early part of the twentieth century, at least one group of people opted out. The Amish banned them because they were afraid that bicycles would carry them too far from home.As quaint as that sounds, they were at least thinking about the dynamics of community life. What would help and what would hinder community--that was their primary concern. When scooters came along, similar concerns were voiced. So the Amish bishops called a meeting to decide whether to ban them. But the ban was voted down. Perhaps the vote had something to do with the fact that all the bishops had arrived at the meeting on scooters!

The Amish are experts on community. On average, an Amish grandma has as many as 50 grandchildren while the average Amish person has more than 75 first cousins. Furthermore, studies have shown that the Old Order Amish suffer from major depression at rates that vary from one-fifth to one-tenth of the general population in the U.S. Despite a diet filled with gravy, fried foods, dumplings, and sugar-filled treats like whoopee pie, the Amish also have much lower rates of heart disease than do average Americans. Some of these findings may be linked to their lifestyle, which is built on manual labor. But perhaps the good health of the Amish can also be attributed to the fact that they live in close-knit communities. If healing and health are aspects of biblical shalom, it would seem that the Amish are onto something.


Originally published February 27, 2020.