Winter 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 317-330.

Anthony J. Gittins:
      Communities of Concern and Close-up Countryfolk: A Parable of Survival

By learning from African countryfolk how to express positive concern for one another, contemporary Christians could better accommodate themselves to the stresses of modern life.

Fr. Anthony J. Gittins, C.S.Sp is professor of Christian Missions and Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. A native of England, his own mission experience was in Sierra Leone, West Africa. His 'extracurricular' interests lie in linguistics and homelessness.

THE captive folk-wisdom that reminds us of such truths as 'a trouble shared is a trouble halved', is periodically prodded from the musty recesses of our tribal memory, then abandoned to return to the gloom whence it came. Not only does there seem something profligate in this attitude, but perhaps we should ponder the fact that in non-Western experience, wisdom of this kind, like other forms of currency, belongs not in the vault but in the market place.

Christians generate an enormous amount of vocational energy which is distilled through the retort of time and talents into the life-stream of weeks and years. But stress is the sibling, perhaps the twin, of energy. The former may grow strong, nurtured on overwork, hurry, lack of time, zeal, altruism, and perhaps guilt, intimidation, competition, and alienation. The latter may even attenuate in sympathy. But stress is no unmitigated evil. It may engender enormous human wastage and significant social disequilibrium, but is capable of producing socially therapeutic and individually creative results. The ethnographic record shows clear' y that 'stress in harness; 'controlled' pain, or 'domesticated' suffering can be life-giving for mind and body, individual and group. The following is a reflection on stress in a generic sense - including 'nervous breakdown,' 'burnout; and ancillary forms of physical sickness -- as it affects individuals and the communities of which they form a part.(1)


In Darwin, Australia, the Aborigines live in camps. Anyone who has suffered serious illness retains a 'war wound; publicly visible or not, as a permanent record: an amputation, a scar, some spasticity, or an impairment. Roger has a facial tic; Maisie squints; ol' Luke has a grossly swollen belly. But there is another kind of 'war wound; a sign which is 'essential to the creation .and perpetuation of relationships of long-term indebtedness among a community': the admission of one's brokenness.(2)

Nobody passes through life unmarked and unscathed. Life itself is a passage marked by changes and transitions, and in putatively less complex societies than our own such transitions are marked by rituals -- 'rites of passage' -- which characterize the ethos in which people live, and thus vary across time and cultures. Perhaps the most significant element in rites of passage -- at least for our purposes here -- is the fact of persons in transition becoming a privileged group, sustained and supported by the wider community as they suffer necessary hardships or humiliations and thereby become more strongly socialized and bonded. Nearer our own experience, novitiates or pilgrimages might be cases in point, but so might some instances of rites of reconciliation, or celebrations of birth, first fruits, marriage, or death.

In contemporary Western culture, many experiences of change are not only not celebrated, but are hidden or denied. Rites of passage have attenuated in consequence, as people take their individual journeys through life, not unscathed but not acknowledging. Anaesthetics, avoidance, drugs, or denial may obliterate the feeling of pain or stress, but as a result the natural response is blocked. And unless we can respond to stress, we will not learn its lessons. Perhaps the denial of war wounds in our lives, as much as the perceived lack of an appropriate context for acknowledging them, is symptomatic of cultural malaise. Science and sophistication succeed in muting what folk wisdom wishes to declare -- the importance of stress as a gauge reflecting our spiritual health.


Aboriginal souvenirs of illness are governed by rules. The first is the 'can [cannot] tell' rule which denies to the recovered patient the pleasure of recounting the healing process. That particular privilege becomes the possession, the property, of another. Sickness or stress follow a somewhat conventional course, in a conventional context, to a conventional outcome. It is significant though, that the rules are only operative within the world of con-sociates, have no relevance for strangers or outsiders, and are nobody's business but one's friends.

Whether we consider the aborigines' camps or the bush-clearings of Africa, Schweitzer's hospital of Lambarene, or the modern Hospice movement, we know that much of the stress in life is not totally random or uncontrollable. Indeed, closer to our own experience, we should know that the unforseeable is itself paradoxically forseeable, and that stresses and sickness in our lives are virtually certain. Learning from experience, modifying behavior, and being among 'significant others' are important ways of dealing with and growing from our own traumas and transitions. The kinds of crises that generally beset religious people or believers today are fairly limited in number, characteristicly reflections of our lifestyle, and predictably unpredictable in occurrence. They are going to be threatening, confusing, disorienting, confidence-sapping, anger-generating, and reintegrating if not disintegrating in effect. In small-scale or tribal societies such as Victor Turner writes about.(3) we notice the "fruitful alienation" of the person in painful and necessary transition, which allows for both a "profound experience of humiliation" and also a bonding of people in close "association, with mutual rights and obligations which may last until death and which cuts right across cleavages on the basis of ascribed and achieved status."(4)

It is clear from these and from many other quotable examples that some societies at least have not lost sight or hold of the energy stored and released in stress and sickness. Rather they have learned (and not forgotten) to use it as a resource. So why does it appear that in contemporary Western culture, even in the explicitly Christian tradition, far from bonding through suffering, many people become alienated, and far from being affirmed, they become destroyed? Epithets like "lonely," "painful," and "destructive" pepper the testimonies of religious people reflecting on their experience of religion, and psychotherapists and analysts of many colors attempt to focus the individual on the social context of stress. If such stress is indeed culturally patterned and controllable, could we not benefit from the diagnoses and treatments experienced in other communities of suffering, whether in Northern Australia, rural Africa, or elsewhere? I suggest that if we could recontextualize our experience today as Christian women and men, then we might be better equipped to handle the traumas and 'dis-ease' that such lifestyles generate.


Tommy Atkins lived in a camp and was sick with a 'graveyard cough.' All his friends, except Basil the outsider, knew about Tommy's cough. Even as Basil became a friend, nobody would tell him the story; Big Bill would do that when he came. Big Bill took five days, by which time everybody was keyed up for the story telling. But meanwhile of Luke told of how, years before, five members of the River Mob died after mistaking a strychnine tin for a flour tin. Then Bill told the story: Tommy's cough was due to strychnine. At camp one night he had found empty tins and used one for boiling water. He nearly died from the residual poison. As he slowly recovered, people watched him to see what mark the ordeal had left. The early morning cough was acknowledged by consensus as his souvenir of suffering, the mark of his rite of passage into the ranks of the 'walking wounded,' and the index of the new identity which is necessary for his credibility as a real person -- a man with a story.
By no means all the outcomes of stress are creative and healthy, but given an appropriate context and control it can evidently become assimilated into a person's life and constitute a source of growth and maturity. Since socio-spiritual traumas are inevitable, it does seem important that there be institutionalized means of responding. Ad hoc solutions may be necessary too, but the point here is that we should not always be taken by surprise; we should be forewarned and forearmed. Because stress, sickness, and the like tend to leave the sufferer vulnerable and isolated, one response would appear to be the provision of an experience of affirmation and assimilation within a caring, sustaining group.

A culture which thrives on rugged individualism and emphasizes competitiveness with its 'win-lose' mentality, will not be predisposed to care for its weaker members. In our Christian communities, if privacy is valued more than mutuality, and if professionalism is the spur that goads the members, individuals may not notice the ordeals that others suffer, or may not know how to respond for fear of invading privacy or intruding on the vulnerability of others. And the sufferer may have few institutional means of expressing anguish with dignity. To tell one's story too readily is to risk becoming tedious or 'self-centered'; yet to be championed by another person implies the circulation of knowledge in a non-threatening, non-destructive way. The facilitation of communication in times of stress, overwork, burnout, grief, or life-transitions is surprisingly complex and subtle in many communities today. To speak of such stress as creative or containing potential for growth, is clearly dependent on circumstances, especially on conventional behavior which provides some possibilities for the sufferer and the concerned persons to communicate and to grow with dignity.

Transition, tension and other kinds of stress may produce communitas, a "modality of social relatedness" identified by Turner(5) in "simplified and homogenized social structures," and characteristic of liminal times when one is surrounded by equals and friends. For Turner, liminality is the "mid-point of transition in a status-sequence between two positions";(6) for me it provides a helpful way of understanding some of the processes involved in situations of pain and alienation as experienced in other simplified, homogenized social structures, namely religious communities.

Communitas, a spontaneously generated relationship between levelled and equal people -- such as the aborigines of the Darwin camps -- is a social response, which is therefore as structured as it is spontaneous. It should be available to people in need; that is their perception. Communitas arises in liminality and out of stress, transition, or certain forms of suffering, and as such can be seen as the creative product of suffering. But liminality does not always produce healing communitas, even in tribal rites of passage. Some isolation is expected, as a proving-ground; some personal embracing of pain is demanded as a sign of resilience. And in our own experience too, liminality does not always point to wholeness, but may precede disintegration, in a society which tries to externalize, objectify, keep at arm's length, institutionalize, remove, or otherwise disavow itself of the tediousness of other people's traumas. The crucial determiners of the outcome of suffering and stress in contemporary religious life seem to be not so much the degree of support, and not so much the progress of disintegration (emotional, spiritual) as the prospects for reintegration (social, personal).

Van Gennep did not romanticize the pain of transitional states, and noted that in a liminal phase one is a threat to oneself and to the group.(7) So there is a real need for time, space, privacy, and separation. But, crucially, this is followed by socially marked rituals of reintegration which re-create the individual vis-a-vis the group. So liminality is painfully necessary but potentially creative. For the individual it provides opportunities for self nurturing, leisure, personal initiative, a 'convalescence; or 'R and R,' and for the wider community it acts as a reminder that experimentation, adaptation, variety, and creativity must be encouraged lest the community take itself too seriously or lest it impose uniformity and crippling controls on its members. If the individual uses the creativity afforded by such transition periods for purely self-interested ends, there will presumably be fission from the community; and if the group does not welcome and affirm the individual in crisis, it will have lost an opportunity for bonding and reintegrating itself.

Pain can be not only endured, but embraced and even sought if the context of meaning is sufficiently strong to sustain the sufferer. One thinks of martyrdom 'for a cause'; but there must be a cause, lest self-immolation or destruction rather than resurrection be the outcome. In our laboratory of tribal societies, we can clearly discern the human and social relevance of suffering. Traditional rites of initiation are variations on a theme of pain, loss, and re-creation. Among the Bambara of Mali (8) the initiate must first become aware of his animal nature by discovering his physical limitations, pain-threshold, and so on. Only then can he proceed to gain control over the tongue and the self. The door to pain and finiteness must be unlocked before a person can proceed to transcendence. The experience of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari is reminiscent of some Native Americans and finds an echo in Eastern mysticism. More than one third of the adult !Kung people routinely and without drugs alter their state of consciousness and suffer great pain for hours on end as they release healing energy upon and for the entire community. All who come to the weekly session are healed. When there is too much tension between adjacent settlements, no such 'dances' take place, but otherwise they go ahead "because people want to sing and dance together as part of their continuing effort to prevent incipient sickness, which they believe resides in everyone, from becoming severe and manifest."(9)

Suffering, then, in certain circumstances -- primarily in a social context -- is creative for both sufferer and community. But in our world of speed and tension, creative energies are being wasted and people destroyed because of a lack of balance between the needs and demands of the individual and the community respectively. Our familiar structures -- bureaucracies, offices, institutions, parishes and so on -- need sisters, priests, teachers, and the rest. Communitas can provide an oasis where Sue, Jack, or Harry can be valued and respected and indulged, not as functionaries or as applicants filling posts, but as individuals and real persons. Sometimes we can take time for a retreat or a vacation or even a day off; but sometimes the slow-burning fuse of our lives gets shorter until there is no more -- and our lives explode.

Other cultures have more readily accommodated aspects of transition and stress to their social rhythms, but the Catholic church in the West, perceiving itself as always and everywhere the same and the guardian of immutable truth, made an uneasy bedfellow with change. And contemporary Christians, particularly religious who lack the framework of the nuclear family with its varied relationships and experiences of change, are prone to reap some of the less wholesome harvest of their age and ethos, such as overwork, isolation, drink, drugs, or other dependencies. For many of them, fallibility, vulnerability, finiteness -- even humanness -- are still not embraced and acknowledged in a positive light, but perceived only as a lack of virtue. To people schooled in a certain type of perfection and perfectibility, indications of dependence, incompleteness, or weakness are seen as threats to autonomy and sanctity, not to say success. In a world of flux, lack of commitment, confusion, and disorientation, perhaps religious women and men burden themselves or feel burdened with the responsibility for being impervious, invulnerable, and independent -- and inhuman. To accept suffering in its many forms is difficult, and to accomplish the necessary move to reintegration is, in theological language, to experience grace or salvation. In the more prosaic language of the camps of Northern Australia, it is to furnish oneself with, or to be given, a story.


The 'can [cannot] tell' rule is balanced by the provision of a spokesperson who alone 'owns' the story as personal property. This is the hero who intervened and rescued the person in distress. The hero or savior is indissolubly linked to the sufferer by a bond of irredeemable debt. All the members of the 'mob' who first recognized the need for intervention are, for the duration of the sickness, obliged by unwritten rules to be available, to show concern, to offer time and talents, sincerely to empathize with the sufferer, and to assure good and ongoing treatment. When the patient cries in pain, it is dismissed as 'babbling' ("That not Billy talkin'. Thatta sickness talkin'. "), and care is continued. Thus, a person is socially sick as soon as the camp dwellers concur in the diagnosis and reform the camp as a community of suffering. While the patient is in hospital in liminal silence; the whole camp is subdued. If the patient feels awkward or an imposition, the community again dismisses such babbling and continues to accept full responsibility. The sick person remains totally reliant on the 'rescuers; and the end of the sickness is the return of the self. But it is a different self.

Distilling this story a little more, we may note three further points. The person who was sick receives a new identity and status, not by will power or personal strength but by virtue of the concerned action of the fellow campers, the 'mob; the community. In order to recover, the person in transition must cooperate in the process of social healing. And finally, the helpers are in future publicly and socially acknowledged to be the effective mediators who assumed responsibility and 'saw a person through' the time of removal from everyday life into an incoherent world of inner conflict where the self and the illness encountered each other.

I have noted already that no person is exempt from stress or sickness. But here I refer to experiences which are significant not only to the patient as an individual. For it is important to reiterate that the kinds of traumas under scrutiny here have significance for the individual precisely as a member of a group, and for the group as an aggregate of individuals. If the community tries to ignore or to absolve itself of responsibility to its constituent members-in-crisis, then it cannot survive as a community in anything but name -- and even then not for long. Only if the community and its members acknowledge and appropriate the reality of suffering and trauma can it be a life-giving experience for both. Then suffering can be a grace or a challenge to change and adapt and renew one's life-patterns; it can be called a "conversion experience" in an explicitly religious sense. The Jesus who calls us to leave, follow, come choose, 'hate; and so on, is the Jesus who undertook to provide a context and a support system for those who accept the challenge. He is also the Jesus who reminds us that crucifixion is a necessary preamble to resurrection, self-denial to self-actualization, and death to life. So where can we find the grace in the traumas and 'Damascus moments' of our lives? We are led or pushed into the interstices of structure at such times, and in that space the values of communitas may be reasserted if the individual does not slip through into abandonment and annihilation.

It is characteristic of liminality across cultures (10) that the passenger through liminal time is fundamentally changed by the acquisition of new knowledge and the absorption of new power, "power obtained through the weakness of liminality which will become active in post-liminal life."(11) I suggest that if the liminal person is encountered and embraced in suffering, not primarily by functionaries or persons of a particular status or authority, but by the right kind of significant others -- peers, fellow campers, mob, or community -- there may well be a deep and salvific experience, a real conversion which will redirect the individual and set a new course for the future. It will also modify the community and exemplify real co-ministry, 'ministering with; rather than professionalism or 'ministering to.'

Gnosis or 'deep knowledge' is transmitted in many societies as a part of contrived or controlled suffering experienced as a transition between two phases of life. But each gnosis is achieved only in and through pain -- emotional, physical and social. The latter is experienced as a stripping of one's social identity and the re-creation of a new social persona. Initiation into adulthood is one manifestation of social pain-and-change; mid-life transition, crises, rehabilitation after burnout in ministry -- these are equally conversion experiences. Power-through-weakness and conversion-through-trauma are, then, not bizarre notions. And an ecclesial community or family of believers may expect both to suffer and to survive when it lives out the demands of its faith. Kenosis, emptying, is a prerequisite to being filled. Should we expect the one without the other? In the majestic cadences of the hymn in Philippians, Jesus "did not cling... but emptied himself... and became as [we] are... ; but God raised him and gave him the name above all other names" (Phil 2: 6-11), by which we can now acknowledge Jesus as Lord and God as glorified! And if any of our communities and support-groups are not sensitized to or prepared for their members' experience of liminality, then there will be no raising of our brothers and sisters, no acknowledging, and no giving glory to God. Rather the individuals will react to the traumas and stresses of life with alienation from the community, and the community will breathe a premature sigh of relief or piously project the problem on to the individual. Only if liminality and pain, kenosis and trauma can be perceived as compatible with conversion and grace, can individuals and communities survive.


When Tommy Atkins was convulsed from strychnine poisoning, his four 'mates' did everything they could, and got him to a doctor. Big Bill is the only one still 'relevant' -- alive and within range; but as long as needed, the local 'community of concern' bonded and remained focussed on Tommy. They 'worried for' him until he was publicly declared not 'really sick' any more. Tommy remains linked to Big Bill as client to patron, and there are others -- 'close-up countrymen' -- who are proud to remember and proud of their concern. Sickness demands 'the formation of a community of suffering.' But social obligation does not end there. A person may not Win very danger; or 'really sick; but simply 'a bit crook' or 'not lookin' too well'; social responsibility demands that one be conscious of the situation and of the patient who shifts from 'being crook' into 'that very danger.' Major sickness demands a response from the community; minor ailments are for private communication. But the community is responsible for discriminating between major and minor.

Let me comment just a little more on the conclusion to our parable. First, apart from 'close-up countryfolk' who supported the individual, there are usually other people who did nothing. Such people are discredited either because they failed a person in need, or because they imagined that they had nothing to offer. In the Darwin camps nobody has nothing to offer, and nobody will be allowed to imagine that such 'humility' is legitimate! Similarly, nobody can be exonerated if they claim they thought that the suffering person was now recovered; it is not permitted in such circumstances for anyone to 'mind their own business.' They should confer with each other and establish the status and need of the patient, and then react accordingly. Thirdly, conversation and gossip are expected social responses, through which any significant behavioral changes in the patient are remarked. "He bin long time makin' toilet," or "she bin sleepin' too much," is the initial step in the process of consigning a once-healthy person to the 'sickfella' status. And finally, people become close-up countryfolk through sharing the co-dependency of sickness and its syndromes. The social dynamic is not one of dependence and independence, but of the interdependence of reciprocal communication of autobiographies -- a kind of living and lived-out story-telling. A given set of close-up countrymen is not only an ego-focussed group of 'me real mates'; through such storytelling and the control of information which is tied to indebtedness, each person's set of close-up countryfolk is objectified and publicized: that is, they share themselves and their stories -- and the wisdom therein -- with the wider community. And the effectiveness of the "can [cannot] tell" rule, and the ownership of the story by the hero, is now apparent; the sufferer is not allowed to wallow in misery or to curry sympathy, yet the dissemination of the story itself adds to the repository of folk-wisdom as people gathered in camps call upon a hero to tell his story for entertainment, and for much more.

If any Christian community ignores co-responsibility, then the individuals within it will be, perforce, left to their own devices. Those unable to find someone with whom to share and be vulnerable, are likely to be particularly susceptible to consequences. Everyone seems to need a community of concern or a number of close-up countryfolk. And where such communities or such folk do exist, the social group will generate its own rituals of tension, sickness and transition, because this is what people in groups do, if allowed to be themselves. Communities will then be able to suffer as well as they might appear to rejoice; in the face of disintegration and death they will be able to choose life. At least they will not succumb to the temptation to run away from suffering, to claim that they have nothing to offer, or to stand and criticize the person who needs to be understood and accepted. A community of concern will demonstrate its capacity to "suffer-with": to sympathize. It will know that when one suffers, all suffer. And it will not be afraid to own and tell its stories.

The anomic world of today seems to have effectively destroyed the environment for creative suffering; its problems with communication, dialogue, listening, and storytelling are not unconnected, one feels. In the Darwin camps, failure, crisis, sickness, and pain are not perceived primarily nor exclusively as negative experiences. Their potential for growth seems to be intuitively apprehended, and the passing of adverse judgment is simply not appropriate so long as the sufferer's life or well-being are threatened. In fact the patient is seen as sacred, power-full, awesome, even holy, and the suffering is acknowledged as necessary and constitutive of change and growth and the acquisition of a history.

Our Christian communities need not shun nor avoid their weaker members nor their members in their weakness. Nor need we perceive nor judge vulnerability only in a negative light or as a source of embarrassment. It is my conviction that the candid acknowledgment of our stresses and anxieties, our traumas and crises, in ministry and in private life, within a social context (already familiar through some of the existing structures of religious community life), should be undertaken in risk and in hope, by equals who are free within a community of concern and aspiring to the graced reality of close-up countryfolk. Such an undertaking, such a storytelling, seems consonant with radical renewal. It might help recall us to our founding charisms, our "root paradigms,"(12) our apostolate, our vocation and indeed our dignity as human persons.

  1. This is not a piece of psychology or anthropology so much as a reflection on suffering and change in the church today, from the starting-point of socio-cultural phenomena and selectively focussed on religious life. The term "stress" is used as a portmanteau word enfolding tension and pain both physical and emotional, as they relate to our contemporary religious lifestyle.
  2. The story is taken from "The sick who do not speak," by Basil Sansom in Semantic Anthropology, David Parkin, ed. (London: Academic Press, 1982), pp. 183-95. The paraphrase does not depart significantly from the original, and the direct quotations are indicated.
  3. Victor Turner left a large and detailed corpus of studies. I refer particularly to some of his later articles, including here, "Passages, Margins and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas," Worship 46, 7 (1972): 390-412; 46, 8 (1972): 482-94.
  4. Turner, op cit. 486.
  5. Turner, "The Center out there: pilgrim's goal." History of Religions 12, 2 (1972- 73): 216.
  6. Turner, "Passages, Margins and Poverty," art. cit., p. 398, 'Liminality is marginalization.
  7. A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,1960).
  8. O. Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality and Thought of Traditional Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 197, . 140-44.
  9. R. Katz, Boiling Energy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 36.
  10. Turner, "Passages, Margins and Poverty," art. cit., p. 485.
  11. V. Turner, loc. cit.
  12. The notion is expressed in V. Turner, On the Edge of the Bush, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), p. 167. It refers to one's self-actualization through a fundamental choice, as perhaps martyrdom would be a root paradigm of the Christian. Such paradigms "represent consciously recognized (though only on occasions of praised consciousness) cultural models,...cognitively delimited, emotionally loaded, and ethically impelled, so as to give form to action in publicly critical circumstances."