June 5, 2009

Finding Community

At a Catholic funeral Mass today for a man who gave so much to the Village of Larchmont community as a member and chief of its volunteer fire department, the priest based his homily on a passage from Luke: "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it."

His message, as it related to Tommy Connell,was that Tommy often risked his life to save others. "Tommy was a giver," the priest said. Tommy gave to the community, he gave to his family, he gave love and he gave hope.

As hard as it may have been to swallow the message of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven, the priest's message that "we don't have enough givers" rang true. What, after all, is a life devoted to tikun olam about, if it isn't about the message that we need to live our lives involved in the world and not separate from it?

I came to know Tommy about ten years ago, after he'd retired from work and was no longer actively fighting fires. He was a regular at the
Larchmont Tavern, where my husband and I often meet to discuss issues over a glass of wine or a cool brew. On Tuesday, the day he died, a glass of white wine sat in front of the stool he always occupied, first in from the door. And the stool was vacant, a silent tribute to a man who enchanted everyone he happened to meet.

The fire department gave Tommy a moving tribute: in place of a hearse, his casket was carried on a fire engine; it was carried into the church to the mournful sound of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." The firefighters, volunteer and paid alike, lined the entrance in silent attention to a man who had fought beside them for many decades.

It was a stark contrast to the funerals - far too many of them, to be sure - I've been attending lately at my Reform synagogue. It was, after all, a Mass, at which everyone save my husband, me and a handful of others scattered around the church, took communion and celebrated that Jesus had died, not just for Tommy's soul, but for theirs as well.

And yet.... The sense of community in the church was powerful; the number of people who came because Tommy had, in one way or another, had an impact on them, inspiring. And I realized that this, after all, is the primary function of religion: to help us find a community in which we belong, a place that loves us and accepts us, cares for us and, ultimately mourns us. Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, we all need community.

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