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True community erupts through spontaneous creativity

August 1979. I’m walking from table to table, registering for my first semester of graduate school at Southern Methodist University. Smooth sailing until I got to the last table, where two smiling students presented me the menu for “being part of the community.” They kept using those words: “You can be part of the commmyooooonity.”

It’s frozen in my brain, actually, because the woman with the pixie haircut turned out to be from deep Alabama, and this Arizona boy had never been east of the Rio Grande. Her accent forced the word “community” out from between her eyes. Her lips flexed outward on the second syllable, with effort, like she was pushing a banana through clenched teeth from back to front. I swear I heard a Doppler effect.

I could join the Tuesday lunch collegium. Sing in the student choir. Student council. The list was long and elaborate.

And I said “no” to every opportunity.

“Don’t you want to be part of the commmyooooonity,” the ladies protested, looking surprised and hurt. I murmured something ambiguous and walked away.

I’m not a loner. I’m not a maverick. I am, by nature, gregarious and sociable. I love being part of a dynamic group, for play or for purpose. I can follow; I can lead. But I’ve never liked being cajoled into prefab community. Always struck me as inauthentic. I guess you could say I’m not a joiner.

My friends will tell you, for example, that I am notorious for the passive-aggressive ways I resist those peel-off name tags at public functions. Sometimes I conveniently “forget” them and, when reminded, I feign to look through my convention materials. Other times I fill it out and put it on my knee instead of my lapel. Once I filled out two name tags: One said “Ste” and the other “Ven.” Wore them side by side.

Once I wrote “Kevin” on my name tag. Just for the random hell of it. Took an eight-hour bus ride to a church convention in Elko. Was introduced on that bus to Father Lloyd. Terrific conversation. Later, at the convention, Father Lloyd rose from his chair to nominate Kevin for a chair on some committee. No one got up to accept the nomination.

See, community is not a “thing,” despite every passionate effort of social engineers to make it so. Community is a happening. A dynamic. It erupts. There are things we can do to make the eruption more likely, but, ultimately, we can’t “decide” to create community merely by joining a group or a cause.

Back to SMU, 1979. It’s September now. I am throwing a Frisbee in the humid Dallas sunshine with my new friend, Bruce, out behind the chapel in a huge grassy area. The disc sails over my head and strikes this huge granite passage of scripture that dominates the back wall of the chapel. From the Letter of Paul to the Romans, I think. I toss the Frisbee back to Bruce and dare him to try to get it past me. I said I was “defending the Word.”

Right there, on the spot, over the next hour, Bruce and I invented a game. It had innings. Rules. The game required a fair degree of athleticism — footwork, speed, good hands, not to mention a wicked ability to throw a Frisbee. We called the game “Breigh” (pronounced “bray”) in honor of a strange noise that Bruce made whenever he scored. The rules committee quickly made it a requirement that all players make a similar noise whenever a point was scored.

Within a month, we had 12 players in a league — The International Breigh Association, or IBA. We had a regular season schedule. Playoffs. Officials. Injuries. A story was published about us in the seminary newspaper. Students gathered to watch and cheer, forming golflike galleys. We had a commissioner, who brought the regulation game Frisbee to the arena in a briefcase. We played in good weather. We played in the rain and mud. One professor let his class out early because of a long-anticipated playoff matchup.

Except for The International Breigh Association, I would have never fallen in love for the first time in my adult life. Thirty years ago this spring, for those of you keeping score at home.

Community had erupted. Real community. No pretense. I’ll always think of Breigh as my one abiding contribution to my graduate school.

Play, imagination, vitality — if these are not reliable signs of the work of the spirit and emerging community, they will do until those things get here.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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