Melinda R. Heppe, In Trust's contributing editor, is pastor of two Lutheran churches in east central Pennsylvania. Spirit Matters is a regular feature of In Trust.

(Photo by Christopher Hall)

One gift of life in a small community is an absolute inability to compartmentalize one's life — a built-in accountability for pretty much every move.

It's not an unmixed blessing.

My teenage daughters are bemused when I greet them at the door with an account of where they were, what they did, who they did it with, and what they were wearing when they did it. It's just for fun. They understand that I don't solicit these reports, but that they come to me unbidden. Still — they know that I know.

The accuracy rating is not 100 percent. I'm still slightly boggled by the rumors that followed my adoption of a boy from China. Granted, we look alike in ways that go beyond our shared albinism, but the idea that I birthed him and hid him in China for three years before bringing him home is a bit hard to wrap my head around.

Sometimes the neighborhood network is lovely. I worked for a while with a small local hospice, where the feedback was immediate. If we did well, everyone knew it. If we messed up, someone usually brought it to our attention before the client or family got the chance.

This network is effective because we see the same people in lots of contexts. Sometimes it is rooted in the necessity of sharing resources. We trip over each other a lot.

One summer, Tuesday evenings at one of my churches, St. Johns', were especially busy. The charismatic prayer group from a Catholic parish down the street met in our hall. (They came when their church was renovating and stayed 15 years.) Also, a 4-H club met in the nave, and Alcoholics Anonymous was in the balcony.

Ah, AA. In fact, there are seven AA groups that meet every week at St. Johns'. They are dear to us. It's not just that we smile when we see court-ordered community service, although that's a plus. (They'll do anything we ask - except clean up under the coffee machine and refrain from revving their motorcycles when they leave.) It's that we love having people in church who realize that their presence is a matter of life and death.

In any event, there got to be a fair amount of interaction on those busy Tuesdays, what with the recovering alcoholics running through the prayer meeting to refill the coffee pot. One man, whom I'll call Rooster, was especially likely to stop and solicit prayer, or add his own on the way through. And the ladies just loved him, because he was a miracle among them, having kicked heroin at the same time that he got sober, and having survived a liver severely lacerated by his girlfriend, who was not happy at all about his sobriety. And he wore his heart on his sleeve, and was polite besides.

He breakfasted regularly at a greasy spoon on Main Street, and so did Stella, stalwart of the prayer group — a solid, stolid, big-hearted woman. I very nearly swallowed my tongue one day when I visited the place and heard Stella call to the departing Rooster, "Now, don't you drink today!"

I asked Rooster about it. "Oh, she does it all the time," he said. "It's OK. I was never a particularly anonymous junkie." (This is true.)

"And she prays for me."

I'm not sure I'm ready to have anyone publicly remind me, day after day, to shun my more obvious sins. Nevertheless, it is good to live among people who have long awareness of my best and worst, and who let me know that they know — for my sake, and for theirs.

Who does that for you?


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