At the country school I first attended, at the end of June, the community held a picnic on the school grounds. Games were played, races run, and families brought food to share at an evening meal, and then ice cream. A large ice cream maker driven by a pulley on a tractor spun the cream and sugar in a large tank surrounded by salt and ice until that mixture blossomed into tasty ice cream.
This event, along with the Christmas program in December brought the community together providing opportunity not only to greet a neighbour who might live miles away, but to connect. Mothers shared stories of family, fathers talked about crops, livestock issues, and weather. Successes and problems were shared to invisibly knit families, neighbours, together.
At one time, summer church picnics were common. Again, food, games, and races provided opportunities to listen, learn, and share with neighbours. These were community-building events.
We bought our first home in the late 1960s in a developing neighbourhood. As new homes were built and occupied, families introduced themselves, children of the same age played together or walked to school together. We held summer street parties, picnics really, and organized Halloween and New Year’s Eve events. We lived in a caring community.
But in contrast, years later we bought a home in an older part of the city. Without the determined effort of my wife and myself to identify ourselves and connect with next-door neighbours we could be isolated.
Just recently we visited a friend who lives in a large, well-populated, assisted living complex in another city. In the hallway and dining room he was greeted by name. He pointed out and named individuals telling, “He was a schoolteacher. She crossed the Atlantic Ocean many times as a Red Cross nurse.” This appeared to be a well-connected community of senior citizens whose lives were blessed by companionship.
But it does seem to me that we struggle at times to define ourselves as individuals. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister writes of humanity’s inherent attraction to both community and individuality: “We are here to become community. And yet, lurking within us is the gnawing need to be independent, to think of ourselves as distinct from the rest of life.” This is our struggle.
Thomas Merton, an influential American author of the twentieth century wrote, “We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others…. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves since it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” [Mark 12:31] Every other human is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of humankind. . .. What I do is also done for them…. What they do is done in me and by me and for me. But each one of us remains responsible for our own share in the life of the [community].”
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk writes, “We are essentially social beings, and I am only one part of the reflection of the great mystery of God. We are each of us simply one fingerprint or footprint of God.”
The apostle Paul describes community through the metaphor of the body: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them” (Romans 12:4–6)
Just recently we visited my brother in the USA. Due to covid and border restrictions we had not been able to do this for over two years. Although now handicapped, the result of a stroke, he never complained and recognized the challenges before him. I learned from his gift of acceptance and optimism.
Sunday afternoon his family provided a picnic lunch in their yard. Here we were able to gather as family of several generations. We shared food, hugs, stories from the past, and acquainted ourselves with our present situations. There was a bonding, a revitalization, and a new awareness of each other because of our coming together as a family community.
Picnics can do that.
Community picnics may have come and gone, but are there new ways to connect socially to develop awareness, compassion, and understanding of the other and in so doing insight into ourselves?