Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Community- The Same as It Ever Was?

Paul Brown 
I’ve been somewhat of a crank when it comes to social media. Technology is not the problem. On a whim, I love listening to an obscure ‘80s punk band on Spotify. Email and texting are now indispensable. But something about social media has struck me as a needless distraction, like a solution in search of a need. Twitter for following food trucks and thunderstorms? Fine. But what else? At worst, social media has seemed to me a self-indulgent time-sink, a digital placebo substituting for real human interaction. 

I finally got on Facebook last summer when my wife set up an account for me, tired of me pooh-poohing it at the same time I was using her account to follow a new Facebook group I’d been asked to join. A fellow ‘80s Kenyon College grad from California wanted to reconnect with lost Kenyon peers and had grown a virtual community of a few thousand ‘80s alums across the world, connected by a shared time, and a sacred place.  As a crank, I didn’t actively post but did find myself actively lurking. I soon became fascinated by the way people re-connected over shared experiences but also how some people, 10 classes apart and from different college cliques, met each other and formed new friendships, sharing jokes, music recommendations, even child-rearing advice. 

College reunions are normally pretty formal -- and formulaic -- exercises, planned top-down by the college alumni office. Every five years, you return and wander around with the same people to the same parties. Fun, but more nostalgia than nurture. But our new virtual community became real when some motivated individuals in the group decided to hold a very unusual, grass-roots, alumni-driven reunion extravaganza. 

In late June, some 200 of us from ‘80s Kenyon classes gathered in rural Ohio for “Same As it Ever Was” (a line from a Talking Heads song, not a dig at Kenyon’s Episcopal roots…). It was a three-day carnival of memory and new experience. There were alums who were professional musicians, artists, and authors who all shared their gifts. A few brave, articulate souls stood up and spoke at a “Moth”-style storytelling event. Some were really funny. Others told terribly poignant stories, including one lovely woman, tired by the latter stages of ovarian cancer but driven by an infectious spirit to share her story and some of her precious remaining days with a community she loved in a place she fondly recalled from years ago.  We re-connected with people we would never see at a regular reunion as well as people to whom we had to introduce ourselves, walking outside the comfort zones of class year and social clique. It was really magical. And it wouldn’t have happened without social media. But it also couldn’t have happened just in cyberspace.

I’ve thought how this might extend to my church community, another place where we seek comfort and connection. In early July, my son’s youth group at Grace Church spent a week at a mission camp in southern Virginia. Through Facebook postings by one of the chaperone Moms, absent parents could see from afar the good work their kids were doing and the fun they were having. Another reminder that, at its best, technology enables us to close gaps of time and space, and allows those who can’t be present physically to feel a connection, through word and picture, with those who are. Communion, community, can take many forms, but both should be shared and lived. Technology can bring us closer in our sacred places, but only if we leave the screen behind, reach out, and experience life with others.

Paul Brown is a vestry member at Grace Church, Silver Spring and has served as a diocesan delegate. Share your thoughts and comments with the diocesan community on Facebook.