For most parishes, a sense of "community" is the modern-day Holy Grail — to create a tight-knit atmosphere that allows a parish to grow and thrive in even the most challenging times.
I found the best example of that brand of community last week on — of all places — a cruise ship.
Now, I've spent a better part of half-a-century avoiding cruises. I'm allergic to the "forced community" these endeavors often impose on perfect strangers: theme nights, group outings, on-board clubs and clicks. (I'm actually almost phobic on this topic: I even dislike line dances at weddings.)
But my in-laws wanted to get the whole family together in one place to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and an enormous ship that boasted two pools, a miniature golf course, and free ice show seemed like the best way to go.
I braced myself for all of it. As I walked on-board, I instantly noticed hundreds of people walking around in identical yellow T-shirts — and figured my worst fears had come true. What now? Would each deck on the ship be forced to wear color-coordinated tops and face-off against the other decks in rounds of ping-pong up on the "Sports Deck?"
But no — I looked closer. The T-shirts announced that the wearer was part of "Deaf Freedom Cruise 2010." On our ship. Just this past week.
For seven days, I saw what real community was all about, as these cruisers moved easily and freely with each other — helping to guide the lost to various parts of the ship, plan excursions on land, and make conversation with people like me at their breakfast table.
One of the ship's crew members — a young man from Croatia — marveled to me about them: how easy-going and comfortable they were in their own skins, how delightful they were to be around. It was, he confided, the best group he'd worked for in his more than five years at sea.
I suppose a trained sociologist would say that shared adversity drew these people so closely together — but we all know that obstacles can just as readily pull people apart. So I don't know what made the deaf passengers on that ship such a generous and supportive community. Maybe someone can write a comment, and help me out.
But I do know this: if churches and parishes could conjure up even a fragment of that feeling, we'd all be much better off.