I was born into a family that belonged to a community I like to refer to as “almost Amish.” While our community didn’t reject all modern technology, as most truly Amish communities do, there were strict limits. We had electricity, appliances, power tools, and cars, but radios and televisions were seen as destructive to the community and, so, were not allowed. Having roots in the “radical reformation” of the 16th and 17th centuries in southern Germany, this was a community that was forged in persecution, including martyrdom, at the hands of both the Protestants and Roman Catholics. For all of its flaws, neuroses, and failures, this was a community that understood the importance of taking care of each other, and found deep joy in the simplicity of hard work, shared meals, and the harmonization of human voices. Whenever there was a need, the community came together.
When I was 5 years old, my parents bought a lot in a small town in Central California, and we began building our house. We spent evenings and weekends on the lot, getting the foundation laid and the rough plumbing and subfloor in place. Then, on a single Saturday, several families from our community joined us to work, and by the time the sun went down that day, the walls and roof were up and sheathed in plywood.
The local paper heard about it and sent a photographer over to take pictures of the bearded men in black hats putting a house up in a single day. While it may have seemed a bit like a circus to those looking on, to me, it was magical. And as we ate together in the dusk and as our voices joined as one to sing the doxology after supper, I knew I was participating in something special.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen the culture around me move at a frantic pace toward greater and greater individual autonomy and unfettered personal power through technology, and I have seen myself pulled along after this pursuit. I have seen myself recoil at the thought of asking others for help with a project, and have often opted instead to work alone, eat alone, and listen alone to music through headphones. What I’ve started to rediscover, though, is that the magic of that day when I was five wasn’t really that our house went up in a day, but that we put it up together, and we were fed and gave thanks together. This, I believe, is what we were made for, and is the place where we experience the true depth of our humanity: when needs are shared, when we work, when we eat, and when we sing... together.