I've been thinking about community
lately. You can't be a "community columnist" and not think about
whom you represent, whom you hope to reach.
This column, my last as a community columnist, is about community. While I may not have decisions or definite answers about how we define ourselves as communities, I do have some stories.
As a kid I loved that moment right after a holiday meal or a church social, when someone started telling a story. Uncle Dale's face would twist into a smirk with a story about his brothers, or Aunt Elaine's face would break open with laughter. We define ourselves as families -- as communities -- by the stories we tell.
So let me tell a story.
My family has a tradition. There is a family cemetery on our farm, and though we dig graves with modern equipment, we fill them back in by hand, shovel by shovel. Each funeral leaves its mark on me because of this tradition -- a moment of finality, yes, but also a moment of incredible community.
One memorable funeral was my aunt's, who died from cancer. Before she died, she planned her own service, right down to the hymns. What she didn't plan was a watermelon.
It was a hot Arkansas July. My uncle, the widower, decided we needed a cooler full of Cokes and a watermelon. Imagine a family in silk and linen and Sunday best, eating watermelon, laughing, crying and burying their dead.
Last summer, my grandfather died. I drove to northeast Arkansas, the roads both unknown and familiar after five years away. I had been estranged from some of my family, so the distance was not only geographic, but also emotional.
At the memorial service, the preacher pointed out that my grandfather -- church elder, mission worker -- often got stopped for speeding between his farm and his home in town, always clocked at 72 mph. But Granddaddy had made a request before he died: that he be taken to the cemetery, from town back to the farm, in a hearse going 72 mph.
So that's what we did. Instead of the slow and solemn procession, we had a hearse flying down the highway, cars full of immediate family in hot pursuit, and a police escort. We broke old rules of decorum, as family and community, to celebrate my granddad's life.
These stories say something important about the wonderful community I came from. But when I think about my homecoming last summer, I am reminded that other gay men and lesbians sometimes have anxieties about their communities.
Many of us no longer feel comfortable or welcome in the churches, families and towns we grew up in. Often, our place in a community comes at the cost of telling -- or not telling -- our stories.
Even in Columbia, a city I love, we may sometimes wonder about our place in the community. I picked up one of the local magazines in February, hoping for a new restaurant, a gardening tip. Instead I found a story praising the local United Way and Boy Scouts for taking a stand against those horrible "radical gay activists."
It was all good vs. bad, us vs. them. No diversity, no recognition of multiple points of view. And no need to imagine there might be gay people in Columbia who could be interviewed, who might agree or disagree with the scouts' exclusion of gays. No concern about the many gay-owned businesses advertising in the magazine. Tourists will pick up that magazine in our hotels and think they know how Columbia feels about gay people! (Ironically, the city provides anti-discrimination protections in accommodation and employment.)
Let me end with another story, about a man who always told stories to answer questions.
When I lived in Austin, Texas, I worked with a church on a summer "parable project." The preteens I worked with studied the parables of Jesus and wrote dramas based on those parables, often modernizing them for a church performance.
When we worked on the story of the Good Samaritan (Jesus' parable about community), we talked about the widespread contempt for the Samaritans. What would a modern equivalent be?
The kids didn't choose parallels of racism or religious prejudice. Instead, with no prompting, they said people hated homeless people and gays. They chose to portray the parable with a homeless and mentally ill man giving aid to a mugging victim.
It's a good story. While those kids knew people who hated gays and the homeless, they also recognized that such prejudices were wrong. And they knew, better than I, that community can be built only when we get past our prejudices against the excluded and outcast, when we break the old rules of division and distance and learn how to take care of each other.
Dr. Madden is an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Write to him c/o The State Editorial Department, P.O. Box 1333, Columbia, S.C. 29202.