The Real Definition of Community

This article by Steve Stewart is reprinted from the September 14, 2002 Clarksdale (MS) Press Register

The regrettable irony of a world in which people on opposite ends of the planet converse freely via strokes on a computer keyboard is a society that has become—in a broader, more important sense—disconnected.

Lost in the high-tech madness of 21st century living is the concept of "community," which we tend to define in the strictest, most literal sense as people living within a defined geographic boundary. By the alternative definition, the "Clarksdale community" is too often an oxymoron—our people divided by the historical barriers of race, politics and class and too consumed by the impersonal hustle and bustle of modern life to find time for connection.

Two recent experiences—a two-day community-empowerment conference sponsored by this newspaper and the Mastery Foundation, followed closely by the interdenominational Walk to Emmaus—reminded me of the value of true community.

Both experiences were powerful.

A year ago, at the suggestion of a newspaper colleague, I traveled with healthy skepticism to Corinth for a community-building conference sponsored by the Mastery Foundation, an international nonprofit, volunteer, interfaith organization about which I knew little at the time. By the end of the two-day program, I was sold on a simple but effective concept: "At the crossroads where committed individuals and community intersect, there are opportunities for healing and reconciliation and for creating new conversations which will make a lasting positive difference in our communities."

On the theory that a program working wonders in strife-filled Northern Ireland could be nothing but beneficial to Clarksdale, I immediately began working to bring it here.

Thanks to the efforts of some hard-working, loyal volunteers who enlisted in my cause on blind faith, the Clarksdale Community Empowerment Conference was held Aug. 26-27 at Carnegie Public Library. For a diverse group of 50-plus Coahoma Countians—from bankers and farmers to educators and retirees—the conference was enlightening, invigorating and reassuring.

The program is radical in its simplicity: Assemble people from different walks of life—racial, professional and religious—in a room, close the door and start talking. For two full days, participants talked candidly about their hopes and fears, their assessments of Clarksdale's current state and their visions of its future, breaking occasionally for important quiet time and reflection.

What difference did it make? The value is not in tangible outcomes. In fact, the Mastery Foundation cautions that it offers no specific solutions to the problems that ail communities. Rather, the benefits are in the conversation.

The conference, for example, was not overtly about improved race relations in Clarksdale. But in the two days of dialogue, blacks and whites found common ground and forged new friendships based on the often-lacking ingredients of respect and trust.

"I don't think I have ever seen such dynamics at work as one by one we lowered our shields and allowed ourselves to become vulnerable," one participant wrote in a note to me a couple of days later. "A degree of trust seldom seen in such a large group was evident."

To a person, participants have expressed a desire to keep the conversation going—and to expand the circle. If you'd like to be a part, let me know.

Still on an emotional and spiritual high, I traveled a week later to Grenada for the North Mississippi Walk to Emmaus, a Christian experience that has touched hundreds of Coahoma Countians over the past decade.

For the two years between the time I signed up to participate and finally made the journey, sponsor Wert Cooper offered few details about what to expect. He simply urged an open mind and an open heart.

I now know why. The beauty and effectiveness of the experience is in savoring the moment and not anticipating.

Perhaps the best preview for a "pilgrim" is to review the Emmaus story in Luke 24.

Suffice it to say that a diverse group of Christian men from across the denominational spectrum found spiritual renewal during 72 hours of fellowship, study and communion with their Creator.

The Mastery Foundation and Emmaus: two illustrations of the power of community. I'm reminded of a quote:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
—Margaret Mead

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