At the Hubbards Market today I became aware of how community building occurs. What builds a sense of identity are those touchstones, those rituals, experiences, visuals, that remind you where you belong. I think humans need this. There is in us a hunger for community, to belong, to have an identity, a sense of place. To deepen and fortify this we need touchstones, a collection of things we expect to happen when we are together. When I ask people about the group they call home they will immediately go into the weeds, the details of who did what. I used to think it was so odd that when asked to describe one’s book club the first response would be “Jenny brings the cheesecake, Patty brings the wine and we always gravitate to the kitchen…” But now I get it, these things are the touchstones, the needed rituals and places we need to become this people we call home.
At the Market there are always the same three men who play a blend of folk and bluegrass music. They are the soundtrack to this community. People who arrive expect to hear these sounds. It reminds them they are home. The same goes for the smells, the sights, the vendors are familiar, their produce, cooking, baking, they bring our senses to the place where we know we have found our places. If these basic touchstones are not present there is a restlessness, a crankiness, a feeling something is not right. New vendors can come, old ones can disappear, but if something formative is missing or has changed, it no longer feels like home.
This is basic human behaviour. But there is another side to this hunger for community that we miss when we focus too much on the touchstones. If we leave the touchstones alone and do nothing new, add nothing new to the mix of community, just repeat and repeat, that community will die from a lack of fresh air. When things get stale no one but the most committed will stick around. Think of all the institutions that you used to hear of that are now gone. Chances are strong the organizers did an excellent job at attending to the touchstones but failed to introduce something new, something dynamic to the community. Lose the new and lose the community.
If the Hubbards Market was exactly the same every Saturday I think people would stay home. The touchstones are not enough. People arrive wanting to smell, see and hear the familiar touchstones but they also come for something new. A new vendor, a new use of space, a nod to sustainability and environmental care, these will get people’s attention. Communities desperately need both the touchstones and the innovations. The challenge is to get this balance right.
The obvious comparison for me is church, when the sacred experience of the Holy, when we feel God’s presence in community, comes to life. People come with a hunger to connect to that sacred presence and they expect some of those touchstones that remind them who they are. Even atheists and people who doubt the theology behind the drama of worship will lament the experience if touchstones are missing. When I explained to 20 somethings, who only go to church on Christmas Eve and weddings, that the church I then served was thinking about removing the pews in favour of chairs you’d think I had told them there would be no texting at the wedding! There was outrage. The pews were a touchstone to these young people.
For any community finding that balance of maintaining a handful of touchstones while at the same time creating a culture where dynamic new experiences were welcome and expected is the key.