A Jesuit Perspective: What a Renewing Community Really Is

By Bob Wicks, Psy.D.
A landscape with city and agriculture

One of the most enjoyable towns I have ever lived in is West Chester, Pa. It had interesting little shops. The places to eat ranged from a mom-and-pop place to a fine French restaurant to a spot with the best ribs in the area. Since it was also the county seat and a college town, you could always count on it to be bustling and filled with good energy.

The town also made it a point to celebrate everything, so you can imagine what it was like during the Christmas season. There was always a performance of A Christmas Carol and a person reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales in a candlelit room somewhere in town. Of course, Santa traveled down the main street in a horse-drawn sleigh, waving to us all.

There was also a group of carolers and I was once roped into being part of it. I don’t have a good voice and inflicting it on others wasn’t my idea of a Christmas gift from me to the community. However, after some cajoling and a glass of Swedish glogg, it seemed like a good idea. Well, as we moved around the town singing, I thought to myself, “I’m not half bad!” Then the woman next to me who had a sterling voice stopped in the middle of one of the carols to clear her throat, and I could hear myself singing “Joy to the World.” I couldn’t wait until she started singing with us again.

When we are part of a community, life is so much better and more balanced. In many parts of America, we don’t often live this way. But in rural areas we need friends to help us make it through the year. My uncle Mike would often call on one of his friends to help him quickly bale his hay when it looked like a storm was brewing.

He didn’t have a baler—just like I didn’t have a singing voice!—but knew he could count on someone else who was able to quickly get his hay into the barn. Rural communities are like this the world over, though sometimes what they encounter is much more dramatic and can be a sharp reminder to us that we can’t and shouldn’t do it alone.

Toward the end of the Zimbabwean war of liberation in 1979, when one of my counseling students was six years of age, a fierce battle was fought in the student’s small village. He was alone with his 4-year-old brother. The battle raged for the whole day, and people were scattered all over the village. About half of all the children in his village died, including his close friends. For a day after the battle, he and his brother were unaccounted for and were presumed to have died
with the rest.

Then they were found hidden in a house where they had somehow survived the gunfire and aerial bombs that had destroyed much of their village. Children who had taken cover in similar places had perished, but they had made it.

My student told me that, as a professional counselor looking back on the event, the
impression the community made on him even surpassed the horror of the violence. When I asked him about this, he said, “We spent a great deal of time afterward telling the story of our survival. I believe it is this retelling of our story and the attention of so many people that helped us to integrate and mitigate the
trauma. The village provided an environment for mourning those who had died and for healing those who had survived. Communal ritual practices played a very important part in cleansing the land and the people at the end of the war. I learned to have a great respect and admiration for the leaders of these rituals and the people of the village, and this was not the last time that they were to come
to my rescue.”

When I asked him about that, he told me that when he was 10 years old he got trapped in a burning hut that he had accidentally set on fire. The fire had started at the only entrance to the hut and the flames were too much for him to go through. He felt this was his end and let out a wild scream. Fortunately for him, his father braved the inferno and got him out.

He had lost consciousness due to the heat, smoke, and possibly fear. When he finally regained consciousness, he was lying in a room surrounded by the women of his village, who were nursing his burns and offering him food. He could also hear the voices of the men outside and knew that the whole village had come to the support of him and his family.

Two weeks later, he told me, the village elders came to his home to perform a ritual partially intended to prevent similar accidents, but also—and of even more importance to him as he looks back on it—to help him deal normally with fire. To accomplish this, they built a model hut in the open field and instructed him to go in the hut and set it on fire in the same way as in the accident. They had him reenact the accident three times, and each time one of the villagers would rush in to rescue him. In addition, they had him tell his story again and again to village
members who came to see him and his family.

From this he learned as a child something that people in rural areas seem to teach each other instinctively: namely, that the tragedy of one individual or one family is a tragedy for the whole community. This is a lesson from a country psychology that would be worth absorbing for all of us, no matter where we live.

In the words of South African poet Mzwakhe Mbuli in his Zulu poem:
An injury to the head,
Is an injury to the whole person,
Is an injury to the whole family,
Is an injury to the compound,
Is an injury to the village,
Is an injury to the kingdom,
Is an injury to the world.

This essay is published in Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm (2011), written by Bob Wicks, Psy.D., professor of pastoral counseling.

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