A few weeks ago, a small group I am familiar with experienced a series of “us vs. them” moments. Group members began judging and criticizing others and those who saw themselves as “them” became defensive. The feeling of community that was developing in the group took a step backwards.
When I heard the story (from more than one source), I was bewildered and saddened – as well as amazed that so much damage could be done in a few moments in a group that had been growing together for many months. I remembered that at their first meeting, group members had developed a covenant which spoke of creating a “safe place” for their members. What had happened?
This week I attended a conference led by Christine Pohl, author of Making Room, Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. She talked about living in community, which she defined as a loving and grace-filled place that produces strong and enduring relationships. She listed three principles that exist in healthy communities: gratitude, promise-keeping, and hospitality.
As Professor Pohl was talking, it occurred to me that the group that disintegrated into “us” and “them” had broken all three principles:
- Gratitude: being grateful for what they had experienced together could have prevented judgmental thinking and accusatory behavior.
- Promise-keeping: the idea of covenanting/promising to build a safe place for all the members of this group was not taken seriously; the need to be right compromised the value of safety.
- Hospitality: for those moments, hospitality was exchanged for mean-spirited exclu- siveness. Group members were not gracious, welcoming, forgiving; they built walls instead of opening doors.
So how does a group rebuild after an experience like this? I think only by the power of forgiveness (a decision to let go of the memory and build new ones) and the grace to allow others to be who they are instead of making them like “me.”
I am praying that I will be the kind of person Christine Pohl was describing so that I never I never breach the community in any group I am in.