Our elderly church member and friend had been widowed, again. When we visited his home, we saw that he had written on his calendar, “Alone again.” He was a man of strong faith, and he was not questioning the presence of his God. Yet, his raw human emotions were quite understandable, and he needed our friendship and presence. On that particular day he did not need or want our advice, but we knew in the months ahead we would have the opportunity to debate his conclusion. He was not alone.
Rather, he had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who loved him and regularly visited and cared for him. He had church members who filled the gaps when the family members were busy or away, not to mention other neighbors and friends. He was blessed by being surrounded by a loving community of individuals who were committed to him and to his care.
My wife and I have seen the benefits of living in such a caring community in the last two years, following her cancer diagnosis, treatment, and complications. Indeed, we have not been alone. Although I transported her to Pittsburgh when I could, there were always gaps in which friends, family, and church members rose to the occasion. Although my son cooked meals whenever he could clear his schedule, we were always surrounded by many willing to assist, in spite of our various dietary restrictions.
Our raw emotions were such that we often needed words of encouragement and support, and constant prayers on our behalf. During the worst weeks, we never experienced a single day without receiving a card in the mail, not to mention all of the electronic communication and support. We were never alone, nor could we imagine undergoing such an experience without the community around us. What would it be like to experience such a trauma without that support?
Recently, CNN has carried a series of stories on homeless college students. They have featured some young adults who had nowhere to live during the Christmas holiday season, when their campus closes down and the dorms are locked. They resume their homeless existence, awaiting the new semester.
These stories recall to my mind countless students over the years that were given a bed and shelter in our home and the homes of others in our church community. As a child and as an adult, my family hosted international students from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, and Saudi Arabia. I remember hosting students from across the country who did not have the financial support to return home for a college break. We took care of our students and incorporated them into our family and church lives.
As I have read the stories recently about homeless college students, I am grieved, realizing that these students do not have this community support of extended family, friends, or churches. The strong community structure that I took for granted as a child does not exist for them. The strong community structure that we have experienced during our episode with cancer is not available to them.
Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult uses this focus in several of her novels. In “Change of Heart” she writes, “What religion did for me went beyond belief – it made me part of a community.” In “Sing You Home” she writes, “I wasn’t just born again, I was given a large, extended family.”
Indeed, our government is too big, and we should not expect government to be all things to all people. Unfortunately, though, our churches in America are becoming too small. Sometimes by their own personal choice, and other times by the failures of particular churches, some do not experience this sort of community strength during times of need and crisis.
We are not all alone, though we will sometimes experience emotions of that sort. And when we are in positions of strength, it is our duty and our desire to be there for those around us who are struggling, to support them during their difficult times.
We will all experience times that are better, and times that are worse. May you, in your tough times, be surrounded by a strong community; may you not be alone. During your strong times, may you share your strength with others, contributing to a healthier community.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.