BY REV. DONNA SCHAPER | Can there be such a thing as too much community?
Judson Memorial Church in New York City has an iconic front sign. Alec Baldwin still recalls one of its messages, “Beware the Military Industrial Complex,” quoting then-President Dwight Eisenhower. None of us can remember the date but it had to be mid-last century.
You can see a photo of the not-neon, not-flashy sign, at www. Judson.org. Some people even ask for updates, knowing that one way or another, we’ll say something provocative or silly or timely.
Like “Black Lives Matter,” which stayed up a long time, even though it is not yet a long enough time.
Sometimes at staff meetings it became contentious about whose quote would be chosen for the week. Or when someone inferred that the process of choosing our weekly message was less than inclusive. During COVID we didn’t replace the sign regularly because no one was “at” the church.
As we slowly came back, the message below, went up, saying:
Call me when you want,
Call me when you need
Call me in the morning
I’ll be on my way.
Jesus. Lil Nas X
This sign went viral.
It received 1.7 million views on Instagram and 48,000-plus likes on Facebook. Yes, we are very pleased with ourselves. The responses almost broke our site. It came from kids who “never thought a church would say that.”
I am happy/sad about this whole matter. The sign clearly built community. It surely promoted my beloved congregation and its parent denomination, the United Church of Christ. It didn’t hurt Lil Nas X or Jesus. The people who took comfort in it clearly found a stranger in their storm, which is what genuine community does. It tells the storm that it will not be victorious in its puncture of peace. It tells the stranger that somebody is there, whether or not in body.
When community cannot gather bodily, it can gather in spirit. One of the main things we have learned in this storm called COVID is that technology can build community. It builds an unusual community, one that doesn’t touch or hug or handshake or sing together or dance together. And yet isn’t that what front signs always do?
Technology has built community just the way front signs do. It announces. It is brisk and brief. It is messaging, not connecting. It tells you what you might expect to see “inside.” It forecasts intimacy without requiring it. It says you might find a deep relationship if you looked behind the cover or under the hood.
When I jokingly asked the question of whether you can have too much community in the headline of this column, what I meant is here. You can have too much entryway community and not enough inside community. You can have too much low-touch community when what you really want is high-touch community. You can spend a lot of time on the threshold of friendship and not enough time in the inner sancta of same. You can have a quick click-bait relationship or one that lasts longer than 3 seconds.
So, after you have called on Jesus or on Lil Nas X, or Judson’s front steps, come on inside. See what’s going on. You don’t have to stay. But you might want to stay long enough to have something to say about what is on the next sign the next time. You might want to stay long enough to be a stakeholder in the message. You might even be willing to fight a little with good enough friends.
What surely caused the attraction to our rarely viral front sign was its subliminal message. I’ll take your call. I’ll answer. I’ll be there for you. Here is a place where people will remember your name, will want your number, will notice if you are not there. How do we find communities that will be a fit for us? What is the larger meaning of belonging? You can belong to a sign and click your like. You can even send it around. You can “open” its message.
Genuine community begins on a threshold with a sign that it “might” work for you. It ends with a home.