Religion is primarily about two things: belief and community.
The belief can be in whatever being or force or set of values one thinks drives existence, and whatever basic rules one feels ought to apply to human behavior.
Community is a factor in two ways. First, anyone can have personal beliefs; a religion stems from enough people having common beliefs that they organize in some way, building upon that shared experience and bolstered by the idea that if others think the same way, there must be something to it.
Many religions have similar core beliefs: in a supreme being or force; that there is a reward for “good” behavior and/or punishment for “bad” behavior; and that everyone has intrinsic value and ought to be treated as you, yourself, would want to be treated.
From this last value stems the second important purpose of community — the idea that even those who don’t necessarily share your religion are worth reaching out to, worth helping when you can, and the idea that we are all in this together, all part of the same community.
That’s probably a big part of the reason churches and other religious organizations are focal points of charitable giving, of service missions, and of campaigns for the basic rights of others.
It’s why they often operate thrift stores that both pass on surplus goods to those in need, cheaply, and raise funds for other helpful programs.
It’s why they run soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters, and refugee aid programs like Faith in Action and World Relief.
Recently, families in Swanzey saw this sense of community in practice. In every public school district, there are families that struggle to pay for school lunch programs. Maybe they qualify for free lunches, but don’t know or choose not to apply for that aid. Maybe they don’t qualify, but have run into some temporary financial problem. School districts usually have a policy of serving every student, regardless of whether they can pay; no student should suffer from hunger at school.
But the schools do take note of who doesn’t pay, whether it’s because someone forgot to add to their account or because they couldn’t. It’s a cost, and for those not in the subsidized program, the districts eventually bill the family for that cost.
At Swanzey’s Mount Caesar Elementary School, the tally of those accounts was about $3,200 recently — until the Pilgrim Pines Camp and Retreat Center stepped in and offered to pay off $2,400 of it. That meant wiping out the balances of about 30 local families.
Pilgrim Pines serves as the Bible camp for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Clearly, its leadership feels community is a big part of the equation.
“In many ways, if a camp like ours doesn’t impact the community that we’re in, then we’re not doing our job,” said Pilgrim Pines Executive Director Jim Condap. “To know that there were parents and families who were struggling to pay these bills, it’s a little heartbreaking.”
It was a grand and useful gesture, far more thoughtful than donating the funds to a building project in exchange for a plaque bearing the organization’s name — though we’re not pooh-poohing such donations, which we’re sure are also needed.
Mount Caesar Principal Melissa Suarez noted how important it can be to those families to have at least that one debt removed. She said it was appreciated by the school, as are all such helpful acts.
“It feels wonderful to have the community support we have,” she said. “In addition to Pilgrim Pines, we have other community agencies and churches that help us all year long, so we feel very fortunate.
“It kind of goes along with ‘it takes a village.’ ”
The village in that now-famous saying can be of any shape or size. It’s the sense of community that counts, regardless of beliefs.