The hit long running comedy Cheers set in Boston Bar is something that I have grown to appreciate more and more throughout the years. It comes from the community of disparate people who find refuge in that bar each with their own lives and stories which all intersect at Cheers. The lyrics to the theme song from the show sum up where I sometimes find myself in life, especially coming back from Iraq.
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
The last verse to the song “Where Everybody knows Your Name” never aired on the show and continue….
Be glad there’s one place in the world
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to go where people know,
People are all the same;
You want to go where everybody knows your name.
The need for community is something that I didn’t think that I really needed for most of my life. It took a huge amount of time isolated in the military as well as coming back from Iraq with a nice case of PTSD to realize that I could not exist without some kind of local connection. This is something that when I returned from Iraq I knew that I did not have. For a good amount of time this didn’t matter because I was always on the road or deployed. It is easy to cover up the need for local relationships and community when you aren’t around.
For me this isolation really began when we moved to the Hampton Roads area back in 2003. I was assigned to a command where I was on the road a lot. However I sought to make build relationships with the local mission of my church in our area as well as other local clergy. After a clash with the local idiot masquerading as a priest I was forbidden by the bishop to have any contact with any of his priests or parishes. I guess since that bishop didn’t get my tithe that I didn’t matter. A couple of years later both the bishop and the idiot priest had left our church for happier hunting grounds. So when I came back from Iraq in 2008 I was isolated. I had transferred in October 2006 from a Marine Command where I felt absolutely comfortable to a different command where I was new and about everyone else was going about 95 different directions. The command chaplain who I had come on board under in the larger command had transferred during my deployment, while the one officer that I had developed a relationship with at my new command was deployed a couple of months after me. When I returned from Iraq even my office had been packed up and I had no-where to work from for over a month. My belongings, including many military mementos and awards were crammed into a trailer and it took almost a year to find the majority of them. A couple of items were not recovered. So on the military side I was pretty isolated and feeling pretty down. As I said I had no church ties from my denomination anywhere near me and had not, due to my own pathology and hectic travel and deployment schedule did not establish a relationship with another church until this year. Other friends had transferred over the years and I had one other chaplain in the area that I can call a friend. We have known each other since 1999 and our wives are best friends. Apart from that I was about as isolated and alone as I could get. It was then with my PTSD kicking my ass that I knew after all these years that I needed to be in community and in relationships with people locally. It was no longer good enough to simply check in with guys that I had known for years but who lived far away.
It took a while to get from knowing that I needed something until I was able to get established in a number of places and begin to build my local ties. The first two places were Harbor Park where I see the Norfolk Tides play and the local Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant. Harbor Park was something that I went to before Iraq as I love baseball. I was no stranger there, I’ve been around long enough to get to know staff, vendors and ushers and have met the General Manager Dave Rosenfield on a good number of occasions as he walks the concourse among the Harbor Park faithful. However something happened when I came back from Iraq. In most places I could not handle crowds, even going to church at the fairly large Catholic Church where I occasionally attend with Judy who is a member there. It is large and rather busy and since I only know a few people there I get a bit anxious, even though I love the Pastor, Deacons and the few people that I know. However every time I would step onto the concourse at Harbor Park and the lush green field came into view I could feel stress and anxiety leaving my body. Somehow almost magically I am at peace when at a ball game. I felt the same thing even in crowded Major League Parks at San Diego and San Francisco when I made trips to the west coast. When the season ended last year it was terribly difficult as the PTSD and Anxiety, nightmares and chronic pain were still raging. When this season came around and with Harbor Park now on my way home from work I knew that I needed to get a season ticket. I cleared with Judy and for the first time in my life I had a season ticket. Since the season began in April the Park has become more of a place of refuge and place of fellowship with some great people. Seeing Elliott the Usher, Ray and John the Vietnam Vets at the Beer Stand behind the plate, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Skip the Usher in the section above me, Mandy up in the Tides Store my next seat over neighbor Barry, Barry’s daughter Julie, Tina and her husband, the Judge and others has given me a sense of community that is like a comfortable pub.
The same has been true at the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant has become another place where I feel at home. I think this began with Kira, the choir child from Judy’s Church as well as guys like Mike, John and girls like Kai Ly who been incedible. We began by being frequenters of the dining room but have over the past several months moved to the bar as it is a bit more laid back and we get to know more people. Now the noise can occasionally be a bit much, but the kids who work there are really great to be around. I was just recently inducted into the Stein Club. Both Harbor Park and Biersch were important because even though the people that I met were those in the intersection they were places and people that began to get me back in touch with community.
Another really key part of building community for me is my work at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Somehow I am at home in the surreal environment of the ICU and PICU and the great folks who work on those floors. On call I am beginning to feel the same way about our NICU. The relationships formed in these areas as well as with my fellow chaplains have become especially important. My boss and some of our other chaplains have really helped me through some really rough times since I got here as I have dealt with the PTSD and other issues from Iraq. As I have made the adjustment to being back in the hospital setting I realized just how much I enjoyed the challenge of Critical Care chaplaincy, the care for patients, families and especially the staff and residents. I am at home here.
The final piece fell into place a few months ago, that was beginning to worship at St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. I had met the Rector (Pastor) of the Parish, Fr John at the hospital as he visited two of his parishioners who were patients in my ICU. We not only met but we became friends and he invited me to St James. Now Fr John is from Nigeria and the parish is predominantly African American, West Indies or Nigerian. The church reminds me a lot of East Side Presbyterian Church in Stockton CA which I attended with Judy. The liturgy while Episcopal is punctuated with familiar hymns and Old Negro Spirituals. The Church itself was founded in the 1890s as a place for African American Episcopalians to worship, Jim Crow being quite strong in those days. When I first went there I wondered about the wisdom of it but I knew that I needed a place to worship outside my little guestroom altar. I didn’t know what to expect, but the folks at St James love worship, music and have enfolded me, a Priest from a different communion into their community and for the first time since I came in the Navy, and certainly since I came back from Iraq I feel a sense of connection with a local parish. One thing that I believe is quite significant is that prior to the Civil War my familyowned slaves in what was then the western part of Virginia. I even met a man from Liberia who has my last name. His family went from the United States, to Canada, back to the UK and then on to Liberia before his family came back to the United States. His brother even serves in the US Navy. I’m sure at one point Cecil Dundas’s ancestors once were owned by some part of my family in Virginia. But we are both of the Dundas family and I think that is pretty cool. Small world.
I don’t necessarily think that I am alone in the search for community. I think for a lot of people they would want to find such a community in church, but from what I am seeing across the denominational spectrum and the move to large churches or mega-churches I am seeing more lonely people who attend church regularly but never feel a sense of family or community. Some of the things I hear from these lonely and disconnected Christians remind me of the lyrics to Abba’s hit Super Trouper:
Part of this I think is that many churches have places more value on “Church growth” and programs than they have on people. There has been a shift, especially in larger churches to proliferate programs which take up a lot of time, but don’t foster relationships. Often the senior pastor is unreachable and untouchable in large churches. Someone may get contact with a staff pastor, but often this is even driven down to minimally trained small group or home group leaders. The churches themselves are so large it takes a long time for a new person to get to know anyone. Now large church can do a lot of good, but I do think what they lack is intimacy. Some home groups have this but others are train wrecks full of pretty bad juju. So I wonder if this is a part of the isolation and disconnection of people. Just a thought….
It has take me about five years to get connected in this area. The cool thing now is that there are a number of places where I can go where just about everybody knows my name. Slowly but surely I’m getting better as I get more connected. I now have the beginnings of a community which is rich and diverse, military and civilian and have the blessing of friendship with so many people that that make up the communities of which I have become part. The Deity has a wry sense of humor to take this introverted rugged individualist to put me into community with such a great bunch of people. She had to about throw me under the bus to do it, but I am glad that she did.