Growing up in the Mennonite church, community is a word I have heard many times. The idea of community continues to be ingrained within me at Eastern Mennonite University. We have community advisors, we sign community agreements, and we pride ourselves on the community that is EMU. The best advice I have ever received in regard to community is that it is okay to leave sometimes. As someone who grew up Mennonite, attended a Mennonite high school, and is now attending a Mennonite university, this idea comes across as abnormal compared to the normality of the Mennonite beliefs of community that I have been entangled in and accepted as true in the context in which I was raised. Mennonites have a history of trauma and persecution; the idea of leaving what has formed our history can be troubling to some.
Community can be a beautiful thing. I love the ideas of community that Mennonites present. Ideas are often perfectly worked out in a theoretical world, but theoretical worlds can never accurately model and predict the stochasticity that is present in life. Divisive events will occur in community, and oftentimes our response is to keep the community together to prevent internal conflict and eventual divisions. I am not condemning this response in any way; I am stating observations I have made from experiences I have had in the Mennonite church and education system in regard to community. The response of the community to divisive events within the community or pertaining to the community should, ultimately, be an attempt to preserve the values of the community rather than preserving the community over the values. We must also recognize the changes that occur in a community after divisive events. Our attempts to preserve the community cannot be planned with our eyes focused on what was in the past, but rather how what was in the past can help to predict the future and aid in the development of the response.
I am not speaking against the role of community at EMU and in the Mennonite church, I write this as a reminder of the beauty that community is in all of its strengths and vulnerability. I write this also to emphasize that even though EMU may label every aspect of campus as community, it can never be forced upon us. When divisive events occur, I would encourage us, as a community, to step away and mourn or rejoice as we are called.
Divisive events are abnormal, often resulting in what seem to be abnormal responses. As a community we must recognize the individuality of each member and respect —in some cases without knowing — the reasoning behind an abnormal response. With as much emphasis as EMU puts on community, it is all the more important to recognize the fragility of a community. Trust takes years to build and can be shattered in a moment. When we repeatedly use a word that describes something as vulnerable as community, we must understand the consequences of every action, whether or not it is the initial action or the response. We must ask ourselves who it will affect, who it will build up, and who it will hurt.
There will be times when it is better for us to leave and find what we need elsewhere, and we need to recognize this. When we emphasize community to the extent of labeling every activity as such, it takes away from the meaning and gives a notion that there is no room for, at times, much-needed separation.
There will be times when we do not know the answer, and, as much as we resent this, we must be open to changes in our community. If we offend someone, it is our job to do what is in our power to reconcile the situation, but it is not our job as an individual or small group of individuals to decide who stays and who goes. There certainly will be times when toxicity is present and certain components must be removed, but we must do it without vengeance, for that is not ours.