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Delegate Testimonial: Hardwired for Community

By Susan Letendre

As a teacher of sustainable living strategies and a social justice advocate, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the idea, realities, and how-tos of community. Two recent stories stand out for me:

On my February trip to Oaxaca, Mexico with Witness for Peace’s Sustainable Living Delegation, I stayed in the home of Dona Isabel and her daughter Señorita Reina. I had been there for a very little time when I realized that I felt as safe and as cared for as I had as a young child sitting on my father’s knee. My eyes filled with tears. Noticing the tears, and with great tenderness, Dona Isabel asked, “Que pasa, Susana!” I told her, in my imperfect Spanish, “You have so very little, yet you give so very much.” She looked at me and, placing her hand alternately on her own chest and on mine, said, “Tranquila. Tranquila. Mi casa es tu casa.” I suddenly realized that, all these years, I had been translating that phrase through North American sensibilities. I had thought it meant, “My house is your house; my possessions are your possessions.” I now saw that it meant: “My home is your home.”

I was telling this story to a Guatemalan man on my subsequent trip from Mexico City to Guatemala, a man going home to see his first grandson, and he said, “Yes, it is true. When a Guatemalan person welcomes you to her/his home, s/he will say, “Bienvenido a tu casa.” “Welcome to your home.” Such a beautiful idea of community!

A few months ago, here in Rhode Island, I met a psychiatrist. After hearing about my work, he told me that he spends his life repairing the damage done by the breakdown of community. That phrase stuck with me, and, when I saw him, again, I asked him to tell me more. After a thoughtful silence he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you about our new puppy. She sleeps in my bed until I get up at 4:30 in the morning, then moves to my youngest daughter’s bed. When my youngest daughter gets up at 6:00, the puppy moves to my oldest daughter’s bed. Then, at 7:00, when we are all talking around the breakfast table, the puppy is at our feet. We forget that we mammals are hardwired for community.”

I believe that life is not sustainable without community. I need to continually hold and act on the vision of all of us as global citizens, crucial members of the community of all creation: all of nature, including all people. And I need to continually re-affirm and take my place in my local community: mutually supporting work, lending a hand when I can, caring when it’s needed, and celebrating when it’s possible. And I am grateful for all my teachers, in all my communities.