The Goodness and Pleasantness of Community

A few weeks ago I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and was struck by the story with which he introduces the book. It’s about a little town in Pennsylvania called Roseto, founded by a wave of some 1,200 immigrants who came across from Italy at the end of the 19th century and named for the village from which they almost all came. The people prospered and developed a little microcosm of their homeland there in Pennsylvania. Gladwell writes, ‘If you wandered up and down the streets of Roseto in Pennsylvania, in the first few decades after 1900, you would have heard only Italian spoken, and not just any Italian but the precise southern Foggian dialect spoken back in the Italian Roseto.’

In the late 1950s a professor from the medical school at the University of Oklahoma called Charles Wolf was having a drink with a local doctor near Roseto. The doctor happened to mention that after 17 years of practice he rarely found anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease. He treated patients from all over the area for all kinds of ailments, but no-one from Roseto with that particular complaint.

This was more than a little unusual at that time, since before cholesterol lowering drugs heart attacks were the leading cause of death in the United States in men under the age of 65. Intrigued, Wolf was determined to find out if this was so and why.

An exhaustive field-study by Wolf in 1961 proved that the doctor’s impression was accurate. ‘In Roseto, virtually no-one under 55 died of a heart attack, or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was something like 30 or 35 percent lower than it should have been.’ As John Bruhn, a sociologist who collaborated with Wolf, put it, ‘There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.’

The why of this phenomenon was harder to discover. Wolf looked for an explanation in the people’s diet and exercise, in their genes, and in their environment, but it turned out to be none of these things. Gladwell writes, ‘As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town…they looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted 22 separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2,000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures… The Rosetans were healthy because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.’

In God’s common grace, the people of Roseto illustrated something of the truth of Psalm 133.1: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! We were created to live in harmony with one another—the souls and even, as Roseto shows us, the bodies that the Lord has given us yearn for that community. Human beings do better in every way when we live as God intends.

But if the secular town of Roseto is a picture of this truth, how much more clearly then should the Church of Jesus Christ illustrate it!

Shortly after reading this I happened to be preaching on the picture Luke draws in Acts 2.42-47 of the new society God’s Spirit created on the Day of Pentecost:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Doesn’t that sound deeply appealing? Not least on a day like today when news reports are filtering in from Christchurch, New Zealand, of at least 49 people gunned down in a terror attack.

·         A community where everyone is together—not just geographically in the same place; the phrase means more than that: everyone is together in spirit, pursuing the same goals, united by a common devotion to the apostles’ teaching.

·         A community where people are so devoted to sharing with one another that they voluntarily sell their possessions to provide for one another’s needs, and not because they have been forced to do so at gunpoint by a police state.

·         A community where people delight to spend time together, so that they are in and out of each other’s homes on a daily basis.

·         A community of generous-hearted people, where no-one is trying to outdo anyone else or show off what they have.

All this is part of what the Spirit-filled church looks like. If the people of Roseto could achieve a secular version of this, how much more can we who have been ‘clothed with power from on high’ (Lk 24.49)? Here is an ideal to strive for that is not idealistic but realistic, thanks to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within his people. And it makes us long above all for our eternal home, the new Jerusalem, a city, a community where God’s people are perfectly and forever united as they bask in the light of the Lamb who is its lamp.

This article originally appeared here.

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