Birthday Greetings, Seminar Rooms, and Walter

U.S. newspaper headlines on January 13, 2015 were about continuing investigations into the terrorist attack at Charlie Hedbo office, about the dim prospect for immigration reform, and about early political maneuvering in the 2016 presidential race. My personal headlines for the day were a bit different. “Kathy turns 56 today.” “First day of final teaching semester commences.” “My friend Walter dies in College Station, Texas.”

The national headlines highlighted the ways in which we are increasingly divided in the world, and the way in which those divisions can be unproductive and deadly. My personal headlines, though, reminded me of ways in which we are connected over geography and time. January 13, 2015 taught me about the power of community.

Most dictionaries supply several definitions of community. The first of these usually deals with geography in which communities are defined through the borders and governments of a particular locality. I more often think, though, of other definitions of community – ones in which connections are forged through common interest, through communication, and through ongoing support.

So why was I thinking about community on January 13, 2015? We’ll start with my first personal headline: “Kathy turns 56 today.”

To be honest, I don’t care a lot about birthdays. I don’t feel a big need to celebrate or to make the day especially noteworthy. However, the rest of the world won’t let a birthday pass by unnoticed. There are cards from my realtor, electronic greetings from my bank and insurance agent, and special offers from retailers I frequent. And, of course, there are the birthday posts on Facebook.

This year brought well over 100 such greetings from family members, from high school friends, from graduate school compatriots, from students and colleagues at the four different universities I have taught at and from my larger academic discipline, from members of the church I still call home in College Station, Texas, from other friends gathered over the years, and from new acquaintances and yoga buddies in my now home of Tacoma, Washington. These birthday greetings gave me a glimpse at the multiple communities that I call home. It is a rich tapestry.

My second personal headline, “First day of final teaching semester commences,” led me to think about one of my favorite places for developing community – the seminar room. I’ve taught at the university level since 1981 and though I’ve enjoyed my time in undergraduate classrooms and lecture halls, my favorite teaching has occurred in the conference rooms where graduate seminars meet. I can picture myself with advisees and others in these rooms in each of the universities where I’ve taught. Eric, Judi, and Beth in one of my first graduate seminars at Michigan State. The organizers of the casserole caravan at ASU when my daughter’s premature arrival cut the seminar short. Lori, Caryn, and Julie beginning decades-long relationships in Lawrence, Kansas. The theory epiphanies experienced by Susan, Erin, and Sarah in Aggieland’s Bolton Hall. Lauren, Keri, Tara, and Trisha sharing stories of caregiving in 431 Stauffer.

And so many more. I don’t have an accurate count, but I figure I must have led at least 50 graduate seminars in my years of teaching. Each one is a new chance to form community over shared ideas, discussions, and arguments. Each one an opportunity for members of the community to teach and learn. And now I’m beginning my last seminar. I told the students that the “pressure is on,” but that’s not really true. The community of learning will flourish as it is meant to, and I’ll be there to nurture the development as much as possible.

And, then, that third personal headline: “My friend Walter dies in College Station, Texas.”

I came to Friends Congregational Church in College Station, Texas, for many reasons. The preaching. The music. The theology that welcomed doubt, questions, and discussion. The social justice ministry. The open and affirming philosophy. Then Friends became more than a church – it was my community. I moved away from College Station more than three years ago, but I have not found another church that welcomes, nurtures, and challenges me in the way of Friends. Truth be told, I haven’t really looked.

Walter was part of this community. He explored ideas in challenging book clubs. He participated in the life of the church – the services, the breakfasts and suppers, the confirmation classes, the choir concerts. He and his wife Rhoda were actual family to several members of the congregation and surrogate parents and grandparents to many more.

Walter was rushed to the hospital with congestive heart failure the day after Christmas, and he died on January 13. His family was there and his community responded with grief and love. While I received birthday greetings, Rhoda and Walter’s Facebook wall was filled with condolences for Rhoda and remembrances of Walter. My posting was typical of the virtual emotion expressed that day:

Rhoda, Walter was one of the greatest joys of Friends. His presence in the front of the church, the way his eyes would light up when he saw a friend approach, the hug and the held hands as he talked – really talked – with you. It’s hard to imagine the world without him – he will be so missed. My prayers will be with you from across the country.

Dan DeLeon, my friend and the pastor at Friends, wrote in the local newspaper that Walter was “a man who never hesitated to love his neighbor.” This is, perhaps, another way to think about community. Community is the recognition that we have many neighbors – across the street, around a conference seminar table, on Facebook pages. And we can provide love for these neighbors with conversation and productive argument, with compassion and support, with ongoing connection over space and time. If I can continue to live these ideas until my 57th birthday, it will be a really good year.

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