A good friend and adviser of mine, Dr. Filberto Penados, told me recently that “community is a verb.” In the time that I have spent in Peace Corps living in a Maya community, I have found this to be such a true statement. While moving into a new culture or making new friends with people who have a different cultural identity takes real effort on behalf of yourself and your new community, it is extremely important to take that lesson to heart.
While in our rural community in southern Belize, I have discovered just how important it is to make “community” an action rather than just a sentimental idea. It takes concerted, reciprocal commitment to help people understand you, your intentions, and your background. Conversation comes slowly in Maya communities, but flows like a river from a cave once it begins. I have grown so close to people in our community by making this effort with them, and I am so grateful to have had the experience of living in another culture for so long and truly developing these friendships. I have shared recipes, American cultural customs from back home, taught local children guitar chords, eaten stewed chicken hot off the fire hearth and pressed endless piles of tortillas onto the comal. While working hard to accomplish these things, I have had the opportunity to discuss my own cultural customs, shedding light on special days like Halloween and Thanksgiving, the music that has lit up so much of my life, treatment of people and animals, and honoring commitments when you make them. The people here, who seemed so stoic and unfeeling when I first arrived, have melted away into some of my dearest friends, people who will remain in my heart always when our paths part and we return home.
It is especially important to take this lesson to heart when we return to our home and families in the northwest. No longer will we allow our community to be simply a concept rather than an action, and I cannot encourage you enough to do the same. Volunteer, go to community meetings, talk to strangers, ask questions, and share silly stories. You don’t need to move to a remote village in a faraway country to understand how important it is to appreciate the people and things around you. As my wife’s friend said to her the other day, “it is important to make friends with your reality,” meaning that instead of worrying about the future and the past so much, truly absorb and reflect upon the gifts you have received in the present. That next job, next shopping trip and next vacation or weekend off will come when their time is here. Enjoy what you have now, and appreciate who you share it with. Community is an action that you can take today, and it is the most important commitment you can ever make in your life.